In the Dark“What’s that?!” At the first owl-hoot, Joey jumps like a scairt rabbit and grabs my arm in a death-grip.
“Owl.” I answer as though the bird hasn’t startled me a bit. I know an owl is no danger to us, even if it does come sudden out of the dark.
A stick breaks off to our left, and he grabs my arm again. I’m going to have bruises shaped like my cousin’s fingers. I cock my head and listen for the next heavy step.
“Deer.” I peel his fingers loose and walk on. Joey’s a city kid, and he’s been driving me crazy for a week, showing off how much he knows about everything that I ain’t had any chance to learn. Plus, he goes on about how much better boys are than girls. He thinks boys are so much braver because they go to war. Joey’s crazy about wanting to be a soldier, which any girl can see is plain foolishness.
That’s why I decided that we needed to go visit Aunt Bella, who’s about a hundred years old, and lives away back in the forest. I made sure that we stayed long enough so’s we headed home after dark. That was easy enough, since Aunt Bella loves to be telling stories about the old days. Only, come dusk, I think she read my mind, because she started in to telling some of the odd things that have happened in these woods.
So by the time we started home Joey was pretty well spooked, and it was as dark under the trees as the inside of a bear’s belly. I made sure to use that expression, as we started out with just a candle-lantern to light our trail.
A tree creaks in the breeze, and Joey’s got my arm again. “That’s a bear, isn’t it Sarah? Growling at us, just like Aunt Bella said they do when they’re hunting.”
I suppress a little shiver of my own. I’m not afraid of bears—much. There ain’t many of them left around here, and anyhow a real bear don’t growl when it’s hunting. Joey wasn’t listening to Aunt Bella’s story so close, I guess, because she wasn’t talking about flesh-and-blood bears. Not that I believe a word of her talk of spirit bears.
That creak is just a tree talking. In daytime, you can tell it’s just a noise made by some branch or other rubbing on another. At night, it’s the trees talking, I guess to each other or the animals. I can tell, but try as I might, I can’t quite make out what they are saying.
Tonight it sounds like a warning.
Ma’s going to be mad with me for keeping us out in the dark. She’s Joey’s aunt and she came from the city, too. Pa, he understands that a kid has to roam, even a girl-child, and like I say, there ain’t no bears or panthers around here no more. He says there ain’t no haunts, neither.
I believe him about the bears and panthers, but suddenly I ain’t so sure about the haunts. I wish Aunt Bella had stuck to telling about people getting eaten by real live bears. That was all I wanted—to get Joey worked up about bears, so I could show him a thing or two about who’s brave. But she just had to go on about spirit bears, and ghosts, too.
The breeze is picking up. I don’t like that, because I can’t hear any particular sound when all the leaves are shaking. Their talking picks up, but I still can’t make out the words.
A sudden puff of wind puts out our candle, and Joey screams. Maybe I do, too, a little, but that’s just because I’m annoyed. Once I know my voice is steady, I say, “Aw, quiet, Joey. I know the way, and we’re almost back to the road anyhow.” I reach out a hand. “Grab hold and I’ll lead you so you don’t get lost in the woods.” That should put him in his place!
The hand I touch is icy, and it sure ain’t Joey. Right there, I forget all about keeping my cousin safe, and I start running. I know every story Aunt Bella’s ever told about the ghosts of all the folks killed by critters and snakes and bad men. And every one of them has icy fingers.
I can hear something crashing through the bush behind me, so I run faster. It ain’t until I get to the road, where the moon shines in on account of the trees being cleared away, that I slow down and start to think.
Do ghosts crash around in the bush? Once I catch my breath, I decide maybe I made a fool of myself. Ma’s told me a hundred times that there ain’t no such thing as ghosts and haunts, but she’s from the city, so I ain’t sure she knows. But even Aunt Bella would tell me that whatever was behind me was made of flesh, to crash around so much.
And then I remember Joey. Aw, shoot. That was him chasing me, and now I’ve gone and lost him, and the trees are louder than ever so I can’t hear him no more.
Why doesn’t he holler?
Why don’t I?
When Pa finds me still sitting in the middle of the road in the dark, I swear that I shouted the woods down trying to find the fool boy who ran off, scared of a creaky old tree.
I don’t tell him that the trees told me to keep quiet and set still.
|In the dark forest...|
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