The old man was nearly dead when I got there. I found him lying on his back in that large, circular area in the midst of the forest, the clearing that had nothing but boulders and tall grass.
"Don't you die on me," I nearly screamed as I slid to him like a baseball player making a close safe. "Don't you dare die on me!"
I checked him- thank all of the angels he was still breathing, but he was certainly not breathing right. His face was flushed, his extremities were pale. Yes, it was probably his heart giving out right in front of me- and here we were in the wilds of the Wisconsin forest, miles from any competent help.
"Don't trouble yourself," he gasped, when his eyes finally opened enough to see that there was another man kneeling over him, "It is time. No one owns time, and no one can take more than they are given."
"Sir, please don't talk like that. I'm going to get you help, I'll get you out of here…" I fumbled around in the backpack, pulling out a plastic bottle of what was supposed to be 'fresh icy spring water'- but was probably little more than tap water from some polluted river. He leaned up a bit more and drank. His breathing became a bit more regular, his face looked a bit better, but there was no doubt that he was still dying.
As he drank I rooted through the backpack again, finally finding the cell phone in the 'Hello Kitty' holder. As quickly as my shaking hand could manage, I dialed 9-1-1.
Static. No bars.
"Don't trouble yourself," he laughed, "The nearest town is Esik- and there are certainly no cell towers there! Ah, there are towers in Sanborn and Mason, but not Esik. Besides," he said with a weird chuckle, "you could never get a signal in this place. Not here. Let's just say that 'another signal' overrides it. Ah yes, it overrides everything."
I was ready to toss the phone into the brush, but I controlled my frustration and simply looked back at the old man.
What was he? Fifties? No, sixties at least, maybe even seventy. His hair, what little was left of it, was pure white and very long, almost like one of those old mountain men from Tennessee. He had a beard, but it was grayish white and very haggard looking. His eyes were dim, like a man who was very tired.
In a way he looked like an old hippie from the sixties. His clothes were old and dirty, all about he looked very unkempt. He wore no jewelry, no wedding ring, only a small wooden cross about his neck.
My mind was racing. I had never been a boy scout and was a little rusty on my lifesaving skills.
"Let me see… there's a farmhouse across the road about two miles south of here…"
"Deserted," he chuckled. "Not only is it deserted with no telephone, it is also haunted. You see that's why it's deserted. People still see things moving around in there; sometimes they hear horrible screams… No, there is no time. But if you would, young man, I'd like you to stay with me for a few moments. I must confess that I am a bit frightened and would not mind some company."
"Sure… whatever you want. Do you want to pray or something?"
"Pray?" he laughed. "Normally that would be a good idea, but in my case I'm afraid that it would do no good. You see, my time is up- my time is up, and I have failed."
"Yes. What I have been trying to do for so many years. Ah the sky is so clear. And there it is."
"Look up there, do you see that cluster of stars? The famous belt of Orion?"
"Look over there, at that cluster. It is the constellation of Perseus. Do you see on the top of that cluster, that bright reddish star?"
"Yes," I said, although I did not really know what he was talking about.
"THAT IS THE STAR 'ALGOL', THE DEVIL'S STAR. It is the star of evil, of misfortune, of darkness- right on top of Medusa's snaky head. After all of these years of searching, tonight that star is in direct conjunction with Saturn, the planet of death and misfortune, in the constellation of Libra, the sign of justice. Thus it is now time to pay back the debt owed…"
"Maybe you should rest- this may not be the best time for astrology…"
"Oh no, young man. You don't understand. This is not about astrology. This is a business arrangement. She gave me until this time. If I succeeded, then I would be able to live the rest of my life as a normal man. But, if I were to fail- and I have indeed failed- then the payment will be due. I have not fulfilled my end of the contract. Thus, very soon, when the sun goes down completely,
I WILL GO TO HELL."
Well, what can one say to that? Was he becoming delirious again?
"Try to rest. I'll go to get help. There might be a trucker…"
"No, don't bother. I'll be on a highway soon enough- and this is the tollbooth. Right here. Did you know that?"
"Well, I have heard stories…"
"If you don't mind, I'll tell you about it. I assure you, no one knows better than me. And after all, where I'm going, I rather doubt if there will be much conversation…"
"You're not going anywhere."
"Oh, but I am. But let me tell you about it. I think I should let you know why this is a very unhealthy place to be. You can warn others. You can tell other people, fools like I was, that they should stay away from here… that they should not do what I did."
"Don't try this at home, eh?"
He chuckled with his irregular breathing. "Even in dying there can be humor. I am so lucky that you found me. After all, Conrad said that everyone dies alone, but I don't have to wait alone. May I tell you? May I tell you abut this place, and why I am going to hell?"
I was frantic, but it seemed to mean a great deal to him. "Sure. Go ahead."
AND THIS IS THE STORY THAT HE TOLD:
Have you ever noticed that there are some
PARTS OF THE WORLD THAT ARE SIMPLY 'NOT RIGHT'?
These are places that do not seem to belong in this world, places that should be in some other, much darker realm. However, like the dark threshold of a world not seen, but felt in the failing hearts of those who wander in to such regions, they do exist. Here evil and despair reign as kings, where darkness is permanent even during daylight, where despair hangs over the land like the mist in the early morning.
Some of these places are well-known, such as the legendary 'Bermuda Triangle', Dudleytown in New England, and Brittany's Carnac. Others remain simply part of local folklore, their reputation not going far beyond their own district.
This is one of those places. A man in England figured it out, some guy named 'Watkins'. This is a ley. Those are straight lines of power that exist around the world. Some lead in between old stone monuments like Stonehenge or Glastonbury. Others are not marked, but they exist nonetheless. We don't know what most of them do, only that they exist. People research, everyone has a theory, but the truth is beyond us.
Where we are lying right now, we are in the middle of a ley, what the old Irish called a 'spirit path' or 'fairy path'. But I know what this one is about. You see
THIS IS THE ENTRANCE TO HELL.
Oh yes, you may think me mad, but if you look into it- like I have looked into it- you will find that this spot has a very long and very dark history. It has been known for centuries that spirits of the dead use this path on their way to the gloomy region of Sheol, to the very depths of Tartarus where they shall be consigned to darkness, wailing in agony as they contemplate forever their many sins.
The first ones, of course, were the Indians. The Ojibway, the Sioux, the Fox Sauk, the others, oh yes, they all knew about this spot. They told their young hunters not to come here, that it was a place cursed with evil spirits. And, just like us, their traditions and memories tell of young hunters who had a lot more curiosity than sense, and the spiritual awareness of a slab of concrete. They came here and many were never seen again, at least not in this world. The ones who survived told of terrible things, then told others not to come here.
The first white men in this area were the fur trappers. Most of them got along reasonably well with the Indians, since their relationship was business and nonthreatening. One trapper, a man named Henri Hughes, was the first to find out about this spot. He had helped some Indian chieftain, and in a spirit of obligation, he was warned about this spot.
He was smart and listened to them. But he also liked to drink, and told others of his kind. The first white man who came to this spot was one of those trappers who had shared a few drinks with Henri. His name was Adrian Wright, an Englishman who left Suffolk one-step ahead of the hangman.
Oh yes- he came here. And what he saw has been remembered for all of these years. He probably stood right where we are standing now. And over there, in the direct center of this big circle where nothing but weeds and grass can grow, he saw the gate.
Yes- a gate. It was a literal, physical gate, huge, maybe twenty feet tall, made of dull, black iron, topped with spikes. There was no fence or anything beyond it, just a huge gate that appeared out of nowhere. The gate opened, and he saw spirits, ghosts of countless sinners from all lands, being sucked into that horrible entranceway. He heard them wailing, he heard them pleading with him to help them, to keep them from being dragged into hell. And he could hear a ghastly symphony of wailing and agony from the other side of the gate, and the sound of things growling and snarling. There he saw not the forest beyond as he should have, but a terrible darkness, lit only by flashes of red lightning.
HE HAD A GLIMPSE OF HELL.
Over the years other fur trappers would come to the place in curiosity. Most would say that they saw nothing- it was all just a saloon story. Others would say that they had a weird feeling, as though something hungry was watching them. Some would hear whispering. Two others actually saw the gate. You had to be here at the right time.
Then the trappers were slowly replaced by soldiers and settlers. That house you spoke of across the road, the one that is so haunted, is right next to the spirit path that leads to this gate. It was built in 1832 by a man named Theodore Castevens.
Old Theodore said that sometimes he could hear things at night, like the sound of people crying and a rushing wind when there was no wind. His dogs would get very agitated sometimes and wouldn't go to the north end of the house, the land where he soon found out the ley was.
Of course, he heard stories as more and more settlers came, the old tales passed on from the fur trappers about this being the gate to Hell. He didn't think much of it until he decided to erect a chicken coop on the north side of his house. He had no way of knowing that his proposed structure was right in the dead center of the pathway to hell.
He had not even started work when, one night, just as the sun went down, his dog started barking and howling like mad. He looked outside and saw that there was a buggy sitting just outside of the gate to the fence of his property. It was a luxurious buggy, a lot fancier than poor settlers would ever own. In it was a tall and powerful man that he at first took to be a preacher, dressed in black, but in fine silk.
But his dog was reacting terribly, growling and barking. The animals in the barn were going crazy.
Well, he had no choice. He had to go out and see what this man wanted, although he had a very bad feeling about it and wondered if he should take his Bible or something with him for protection. He took his shotgun instead.
"Good evening neighbor Castevens," said the man in a powerful voice, "Might I come in and have just a few words with you?"
Old Theodore had heard stories, about how evil sprits cannot enter a house unless they are given some kind of invitation first. After that, if one is so foolish as to admit them, they have a right to be there and it can be nearly impossible to get rid of them.
"Uh, my wife is not feeling well, sir. Maybe I'll come to you."
The stranger chuckled. "Yes, neighbor Castevens, maybe you shall come to me."
He walked up to the gate but did not open it or go beyond. He could not help to notice but that his dog would come no closer to the stranger than he had been before.
He got a good look at this fellow. He later said that the man was very big, quite muscular, very well dressed, and that his eyes were very bright.
"Well, sir," he stammered, "You seem to know my name, but I don't know yours…"
"Let us not play games, Theodore, you know very who I am. I have come to ask a favor of you."
"Really? Now what would you want of me?"
"First, allow me to assure you that I mean you no harm. However, I want you to build your chicken coop somewhere other than where you laid the stakes out. You see, it interferes with my passage."
"Yes- that is a good way to describe it: passage. Now, neighbor Castevens, I don't want anything from you beyond not putting a blockage in the pathway. You see, my clients tend to be a bit reluctant, and we don't want anything to stop them from their destination. After all, you certainly don't want them in your house or wandering around the countryside. That would not be good at all. Besides, I don't think that your chickens would enjoy having that going through their home. It would certainly interfere with their egg laying! No, you move that coop, and I will be grateful. And trust me, I am a good one to have as a friend."
"Well, I'll study on it," said Theodore, trying to keep his fear in check.
With that the stranger tipped his wide-brimmed black hat and said with a smile showing very sharp teeth, "I am glad to hear that, neighbor Castevens. Yes, I do believe that I shall be in your debt. A good evening, and a very good life to you." He turned the buggy around, that fancy buggy with the inky black horse pulling it, and did not proceed down the road, but across the road and into the brush, right along the invisible pathway that Theodore was planning to build his chicken coop on. A fog came from nowhere, and in a moment all trace of the buggy was gone. The fog cleared very quickly as Theodore looked at the road where the buggy had parked. There were no ruts or marks from the hooves of that black horse- nothing that indicated the man had ever been there.
Now Theodore Castevens was a God-fearing man but he was also no fool. Everything the stranger said made sense in a strange kind of way, and he certainly did not want any trouble. Not only did he not build the chicken coop there- he built it far on the south side of the house well away from the spot, but he even removed the rails from the fence that went over the invisible line the stranger had spoken of.
He had good luck after that, not get rich and live a life of luxury good luck, but good just the same. His crops came in bountiful every year. A hailstorm ruined every field in the district, but his was only half damaged and he managed to get by when others were losing their homes. A twister came through, tore up two other buildings and the mill, but went back into the sky, literally leaping over the Castevens farm. One of his sons went to Chicago, then another went to Detroit and his youngest to Cincinnati. All did well in business. His daughters married fine men and all moved away. Theodore Castevens died in his sleep in 1859, just before the terrible war that would rip the country apart.
The house was deserted for the duration of the war, as no relatives had any interest in it and his sons were busy fighting. Then came another man, a hardened war veteran named Michael Lasita.
LASITA WAS A FOOL,
there is no other way to describe him. He was cantankerous and ornery, cruel to his wife and children, and generally unpleasant with everyone that he met. He paid little attention to the old stories about the house, the gate, and stories of the strange encounter of the previous owner. And, he certainly did not like where his fence rails had been removed. He replaced them- then began to erect a stone wall around his property.
Sure as clockwork the strange buggy came to his gate.
"Good evening, neighbor Lasita," he said in his powerful voice.
"I do not know if you are my neighbor," came the curt reply. "Who are you and what do you want?"
"Oh really now, I do believe that you know who I am…"
"I have no idea. I have never seen you around here before."
"Oh, but I have been around here. I have been for a very long time. I have some business to discuss with you."
"Well, what is it? Be quick with it."
"Your stone wall."
"What about my stone wall?"
"I don't want you to build it."
"And who are you to tell me what to do on my own land?"
The stranger chuckled a bit. "Ah, so that is the way it is to be, is it? Well, let me explain it this way, neighbor. If you take a rushing stream and dam it up, where does the water go?"
"I don't know what you're…"
"Most of the water will go over the dam, but quite a bit will go around the obstacle, spilling out onto the sides. That is exactly what you're planning to do here, only it is not water we're talking about. Its spirits- the souls of the damned. If you block their passage to my entrance, then they will wander about this area, including right inside of your house."
"Are you threatening me?"
"No, neighbor Lasita, I am warning you. Build that wall and things will become very strange and unhappy in your home."
"Look whatever your name is, you can't scare me! I am from the War- Massachusetts volunteer! I fought Forrest at Chickamauga…"
"You turned tail, and ran at Chickamauga," laughed the stranger, just like your commander Sheridan. But I can promise you that with all of the horrors that you saw at Shiloh, Lookout Mountain and Atlanta will have no comparison to the sights that your family will endure should you build that wall and interrupt the flow of the damned. But I will leave that decision up to you. Should you decide, either do not build the wall, or tear it down once it is built."
"Get out of here before I get my shotgun!"
"Good evening, neighbor Lasita. Until we meet again- and I have no doubt that we shall indeed meet again, under less happy circumstances." He tipped his wide-brimmed hat and rode off as he had before- into the forest.
Well, it should come as no surprise that that fool Lasita started work on the stone wall the very next day. He was going to make it four feet high, but now, in defiance, he made it nearly six. And, of course, he started exactly where the stranger told him not to build.
Things started happening almost at once. Voices were heard in the house, sometimes whispering, sometimes screaming. Strange people were seen wandering around the house, as though lost and confused, then they would just vanish. Things started to move by themselves, sometimes things were thrown at Lasita and his family. The dog ran away, the livestock was in a constant state of panic.
The wife and children left him when the eldest daughter, a pretty young thing named Prudence, swore that something invisible got into bed with her and started to… well, touch her inappropriately.
That stuborn old cuss still wouldn't tear down the wall. For years he lived there all alone,
JUST HIM AND THE GHOSTS OF THE DAMNED.
Everyone from Sanborn to Mason knew he was mad, and no one wanted anything to do with him. He was dead a few weeks before someone finally noticed. No one cared. He was buried alone in a corner of the cemetery, his grave facing north rather than east.
His heirs, to no one's surprise, did not want to take possession of the house. In fact, they were living in Nebraska, except for the eldest son who was a lawyer in St. Louis. He sent the clergyman, Reverend Mathison of the Presbyterian Church some money, and asked him to bless the house, and take the money to hire someone to tear down that portion of the stone wall that blocked the pathway.
The reverend got the Baptist minster and a Catholic priest together; apparently they were friends, and the three performed a little prayer service with the priest using generous amounts of holy water. Some men from the town took sledgehammers and tore a good chunk of that wall down. That's the way it stands today, because no one has ever wanted to live there since. A few vagrants have gone in there wanting to spend the night, but no one has.
As the years went by, stories kept rising about the gate in the forest. Every so often some kids would sneak out there at night, especially on Halloween, and watch for something to happen. Usually they came back disappointed, more often than not the teens would come back a bit drunk. But every now and then, about once every five or six years, some curious folks would see something weird, or hear those strange screaming sounds. Over the years, another seven people saw the gate itself, last one, let me see, 1959.
THEN IT WAS MY TURN.
The year was 1968, and I was the biggest fool of the year. I thought that I was gong to be the next Aleister Crowley, the great satanic magician. I was to be the devil's representative on earth, or s9o I thought. I was the wizard, the occultist, the dark magician, a modern Merlin. I was, of course, an idiot.
Oh yes, I thought that I knew it all: astrology, tarot cards, love spells, curses, elixirs, old chants, Ouija boards, séances and ritual magic. I gathered some friends and came on Beltane to this place. Yes, Walpurgis night the NIGHT OF THE DEVIL.
I was certain that the gate would appear, and I would impress my friends with my powers as a great sorcerer. There was one young lady that I had a great interest in impressing- with further plans for some hedonistic debauchery afterwards, once she was sufficiently impressed, of course.
I sat in this spot, right here- with legs crossed, candles blazing, and two human skulls that I hoped the hell I could get back to the Paleontology Department before someone noticed they were missing.
Well, I had timed things correctly. My friends pulled back, horrorstruck, pointing for me to look at the gate. Yes, it had appeared. And with it a glowing line leading straight into it. We could all hear
THE WAILING OF THE DAMNED
As they were sucked into the open gate to hell. The candles before me were fizzing and sparkling like it was the Fourth of July. I figured that I had given them enough of a show, and got up to leave the area.
That was when I had made my big mistake, and my life and so many others were destroyed or ended.
As I stood up, my intended for the evening, a raven-haired beauty named 'Laura', pointed at me and screamed, "It's on you!"
I stopped, seeing the look of horror not only on her face, but the others. Jim shouted out, "Man, it's on your back!"
With that I could feel it! Yes there was indeed something on my back, clinging to me. I could feel what seemed like hundreds of tiny pinchers digging for support into my back. It was not heavy, but more of a cold vibrating feeling, something alive but not alive clutching to me in desperation.
I should have stayed right where I was. But instead I moved out of the dark pathway, hoping to somehow eradicate the thing from me. I moved towards my friends, who as a one ran off in panic.
I wanted to run too- but I had this thing on me.
Then, once we were out of the ley, the thing immediately unattached itself from me. I could see it. At first it was a bright, greenish glowing blob, not in any way human but more like an amoeba. It started to dart towards the forest, in the other direction from where my friends had fled.
It only took a few seconds for it to cover the ground between the cleared area and the dense forest. But in that short amount of time, it transformed. With each bounding step it was less like a glowing blob and more like a human. For a brief moment it was like a human glowing green like the numbers on a luminous watch face. Then, just before it disappeared into the darkness, it was a man, a naked man running madly for freedom into the darkness and dense brush of the woods.
But my troubles had just begun! Now something was coming out of the gate! I did not know what it was- it was
EITHER THE DEVIL OR SOMEONE FROM THE ACCOUNTING DEPARTMENT.
It was a girl, a little girl of perhaps twelve or thirteen. At least, that is the form the creature from the other side took. She was tall, thin, and had very long black hair. She was dressed in a long robe that was not so much black as it was, a pure absence of light. It was not a color, but a complete nonexistence of color or anything physical in this world, a moving hole into a realm of utter visible darkness.
As she approached me she kept her head down and her eyes closed. Her eyes, which were little more than horizontal slits more reptilian than human, suddenly opened as she reached me. To my utter horror, what should have been eyes were instead merely intense luminous slits of silver!
"You fool!" she growled at me in a voice that was powerful and frightening. The tone was not human in any way, and made one actually ill with fright to hear it. It was like metal scraping on glass. "You blatant idiot! Do you have any idea what you have done?"
I could not answer. In fact, I feel no shame in admitting that by now I had even wet myself!
"The thing is loose!" she snarled. "What do you think it is going to do now? That which is dead is now wandering about the countryside. It is not alive but it is here. Soon, you great wizard, soon
THE THING YOU BROUGHT BACK TO THIS WORLD IS GOING TO FEED!
Is that what you want? What do you think it is going to feed upon? Apples?
"You brought it here, you must return it. The balance is off. You have until my star is in conjunction with Saturn, in the balance sign. If by then you have not returned my property to me, then you will have to take his place!" She paused as I contemplated the terrible thing she had just said to me. Then in a calm voice, turning around, she spoke to me as one would to a dog, "Why are you lying there covered in piss? You have a job to do. Oh," she said, stopping and glancing back at me with those terrible silver eyes, "If you fail to deliver, don't make me come for you. It won't be pleasant."
She went back into the infernal gate, which shut behind her. Just that quickly it vanished, and I was alone.
I thought that I had a life, a good education, a future ahead of me. Now I had a curse and a dark mission. If I were to save my soul, I had to return that man to the gate, and to utter damnation. Otherwise, I would have to go in his place.
THE KILLINGS STARTED ALMOST AT ONCE.
Hunters, hikers, prostitutes, runaways, occasional farmers. Like every predator this thing had a wide territory, sometimes north of Sanborn, other times right in Esik. There is a national forest north of here- many times search parties scoured the woods futility looking for missing hunters or campers. Sometimes they found mutilated bodies, or traces where a terrible slaughter had taken place.
Stories started just as quickly. Some say that the wendigo is haunting the region. Others of European ancestry mumbled about a werewolf or some kind of primeval monster. Thoughts of a crazed killer or tribe of inbred cannibals were most common. Later the term 'serial killer' was heard.
I listened to the stories in diners and groceries, but did not comment. I was the only one who knew what it was. It was the thing that I accidentally let loose upon the world, and now… now it is time to pay for my foolishness. I think the count is at twenty-two… twenty-two people dead because of me.
"NO. THEY HAVEN'T FOUND ALL OF THE BODIES,"
I said in a distant voice, looking not at him, but at the ground behind him. The old man, his sad narrative now finished, looked at me perplexed as I took off the backpack and set it on the ground near him. Now he could see the fresh bloodstains from that pretty hiker from Delaware. She wouldn't be needing the backpack anymore.
"THE GATE IS THERE"
I said calmly. He turned his attention from the backpack and me to a remarkable sight. Yes, there was indeed, just as he had said, a tremendous black gate that appeared from nowhere in the center of the clearing. Very slowly the iron, spiked gates started to swing open. As they did, they revealed not forest behind them, but a dark and stormy world of lightning and flame. A cacophony of eternal screams rose to our ears as the doors swung ever further open. And walking slowly out of the misty storm was the little girl he had described with the silver eyes and the flowing gown of darkness.
Our conversation was over.
She walked up to where we were on the ground, and said in an emotionless voice, "Your sojourn is over.
IT IS TIME FOR ME TO TAKE YOU TO HELL."
The old man with a sad face simply nodded and started to get up. But before he could rise, the girl said in a forceful, inhuman voice, "Not you, fool. Him!"
He looked over to me as I rose. I too could do nothing more than nod in agreement. Then I looked down at the old man with his jaw open in shock.
"Well," I said flippantly, "Even I couldn't let another man go to hell for me." I sighed, the continued, "You gave me a good run, that's for sure. Oh, I wouldn't worry much about this girl coming for you some day. After all, you spent your entire life trying to repair the damage that you, trying to help others by correcting your foolishness. I think that all counts for something." I looked at the infernal lass and asked, "Does it not?"
"I have no covenant with him. Come."
I gave the old man a quick smile and followed the girl into the black gate.
MY VACATION WAS OVER.
Copyright Steven J. Rolfes 2011