by Thomas Scopel
Author's Note: The photograph above (compliments of Josh Carson) was the inspiration for this tale. Of course, there is some small amount of truth included also.
Robert Barker tapped the period button on the keyboard a little harder than normal. The article, spanning a little over a month of research, was finally finished. He sat back, looked at the words on the screen and smiled. Although it was near Halloween, he was quite sure the Herald Star newspaper probably wouldn’t be interested in a piece surrounding devil worshiping, witchcraft and the occult, even if it was modern and more of a reference commentary. Originally hoping for an exposé, before starting the piece he wrote a snippet and took out an ad in various trade publications requesting authentic examples and experiences. Because he typically wrote for them, the newspaper complimented and supplemented with a small ad on both the classified and legal pages.
Over the first week, while concentrating on standard fare of local and human interest pieces and meeting deadlines he avoided the idea, took to waiting and watching for mail that he was sure would bring a bounty of material. Two weeks passed and other than a couple of nutcase and threatening religion fanatical replies, there was nothing substantial and he began losing hope, but held tact to intent. Through a month moratorium of obsession he studied a host of books from the library, jotted down notes, bookmarked every associated website and the exploration became a blur of odd symbol charts, pentagrams, spells resembling poems, familiar herbs, demon names and stories of the Salem witch trials. Prior to the piece, he hadn’t really given much thought to the subject and in all honesty couldn’t say he genuinely believed. After all, this piece was more for the sake of Halloween than anything.
Motivation turned into compulsion and as the unopened mail piled higher and higher at the corner of the kitchen bar, an impulse to do nothing more than the piece continued and after languishing through subjective book after book and pouring over website after website, he had more than enough material to take the informative route and chose to do so. From history to purpose to method to reason was detailed under headers, eventually edited down to a suitable Sunday feature size and he submitted. A week later he wasn’t all that surprised at the rejection slip and began submitting elsewhere. A few evenings later, having simultaneously submitted to a fourth publication, he decided to tackle the stack of neglected mail.
After pouring a celebratory shot of bourbon, downing and refilling, he clutched the stack of envelopes, flyers and postcards and went to the living room easy chair. Lightning flashed as he took another nip and for a moment he listened to the distant rumble.
Sorting through the stack on his lap, on each leg he made a pile, one for bills and one for miscellaneous. There were a couple of envelopes stamped second notice in bold red lettering and he faintly recalled reading about a money spell before stacking them. He picked up the next envelope. Unlike the others, which were mostly number tens, this one was a smaller number six, a thick one at that, and he opened it. Unfolded, he flipped through the corners of the pages, counting thirteen, put them back together evenly and looked at the first page. Written with black ink in handwriting that was shaky like it had been composed by a person afflicted with arthritis or worse, it was otherwise legible and he began reading.
Dear Mr. Barker,
When I first saw your ad it gave me a sense of hope and I started no less than four letters aimed at you which was crumpled up and tossed out of fear. Disclosure can be very terrifying and after an extensive contemplation of realizing that regardless of my actions, I am most assuredly doomed and therefore wrote this fifth letter as a last resort; a documentation of truth if you will, for I will probably not see tomorrow. And, to be rather frank, I have seen enough.
My name is of no concern and telling you would be nothing more than wasted space. Oh, I could make mention but it won’t matter and I implore you to not investigate. While there are probably others like myself that struggle with this damning knowledge, to fathom questioning assures swift retribution and simply trust when I say that there are forces in this world constrained by a higher, or should I say lower, power. Believe me, some things are better left unseen. As is my case, I’ve seen and it is clear that my disappearance is probable. You see, distance doesn’t matter; one will never be far enough; they’re reach is far greater.
For some time now I held tight this secret and for some time now reiteration of what would occur if I was to divulge was constantly reinforced through invasion of dreams and various other presages. Up until now, fear limited such a notion, but no longer able to face the nightmares, I will reveal, hoping that by doing so the burden will lift from my shoulders, even if death is the ultimate price.
Robert flipped to the next sheet. It was blank. He checked the next few and they too were blank. Perplexed, he finished the shot and looked at the sheets again. Lightning flashed twice and the thunder was getting closer. Surely someone who started such an enticing and frightening letter would at least finish it he thought. Or maybe they wouldn’t, he reasoned, considering how panicky and unsettled the writer appeared to be.
Drawing the sheets closer he tightly inspected, recalling the messages he and his adolescent pals used to pass in school, using lemon juice for ink. To the naked eye they were invisible, but apply a heat source and the words magically appeared. He turned toward the lamp on the end stand beside the chair and slipped the blank sheet up under the lampshade nearly against the hot bulb. But no letters appeared. Viewing it as some maniacal joke, anger stewed and he tossed the sheet to the floor. On the verge of tossing the rest of the letter, his arm stopped midstream after recalling reading a spell that supposedly made words appear. He glanced across the room at the pile of library books scattered on the floor at the side of the desk, but had no inkling of where or which book he had read it in. Beforehand, skepticism was the norm and he certainly didn’t believe in witches or their hocus pocus, but after having read much on the subject matter, his views became swayed into unsure leaning. Spurned by wanting to know, he decided to inquire.
It was after one in the morning and the storm had come and gone by the time he found what he had been seeking, on page 234 in a book called “The World of Wicca.” He had doubts to success, but rationed that if he was going to try, then he might as well do it right and cautiously read the pre and post paragraphs explaining the spell in detail. The spell called for a white candle and it took him a few minutes of hunting through a kitchen junk drawer to find a leftover pack of birthday candles and another few moments to pluck the last white one from the remaining colored ones.
After aligning all the blank sheets evenly across the desk, he fetched the shot glass from the end stand and put the candle in it. It leaned against the side, but the wick was above the rim and he lit it, chuckling a bit while envisioning that he was a medieval sorcerer complete with star encrusted robe. Moving to the side, he looked down at the open book and read the words out loud.
Neptune kalata vosmoor
Oulatec thyn shirata morn
Vitoom vendum veedi
Lytook nevy fiperaze
Nothing occurred, which wasn’t a total disappointment and he chuckled again, mostly at his foolhardiness. Resolved in forgetting the letter completely he blew out the candle and turned to go back to the chair, intent on tackling the rest of the mail.
There was a faint tap and then a tiny rattle on the wooden desk. He turned back to see his favorite ink pen shakily rise up, slide onto the first blank sheet and begin feverously writing line after line. Ripples of fearful flutters trailed over and over down his spine as he watched the pen write page after page before flopping down as if nothing had occurred.
Astonished and fearful, he glanced back and forth from paper to pen. Both terrified and enthralled at the prospect of reading what had been written, for a moment the thought of burning the sheets flashed across his mind, but resolution took over firmly pushing the consideration away and he gathered them up.
Sitting in the chair, jitters remained and he contemplated obtaining another shot to fend them off but instead forced himself to look at the first page. The handwriting was exactly as the opening page had been, precarious and unstable. He pondered whether or not to reread the beginning, but was afraid the words would dissipate as quickly as they came and began on what had been the first blank sheet.
Welcome back Robert and a sincere thank-you for calling upon me.
Robert felt the jitters increase into hard quivers.
I must reiterate and emphasize the importance of refraining from taking any physical steps further. Please heed my warning. Knowing my tale is one thing. Exposing the truth is entirely another and believe me, doing so will only bring wraith. While death is so cold, it can be far from final. The living tend to think death brings peace, and maybe in alternate circumstances it does, but that is something I’ll never know since my spirit is controlled by them, and sometimes him.
In life, making mention of this tale was almost beyond comprehension. Of course, at the time I couldn’t say what the exact costs for doing so entailed, I did however, grow to suspect the worse. I didn’t heed and this assumption was absolute and correct. The repercussions are quite spiteful, filled with horrid and often repulsive emotional unpleasantness. Having already experienced the physical pain of flames licking my body, hearing the sizzling sound of bubbling flesh and smelling that awful odor, physical harm is no longer possible, but their true forte is inflicting emotional disturbance and it is far worse.
Thus, as I tell my tale of a harmless teenage idea that transformed into a horrific dance with the devil, I am maintaining a certain amount of assiduous and surreptitious hope that you will learn, yet remain fearful of ramifications. You have been warned.
Bergholz has always had a furtive secret and most of the townsfolk are aware. But, unlike most small and quaint seasonal picturesque country towns whose typical enigmas include the standard fare of illicit affairs, family squabbles, drunkenness and drug and physical abuse, this town’s skeleton in the closet is far more terrifying. While those examples are unacceptable and horrendous in their own right, they bare in comparison. This secret, if and when spoken, is limited to the confines of close knit home walls, and only in hushed whispers.
Nestled in eastern Ohio not far from where the steel mills used to offer jobs and black soot pollution, the town, in many ways, is no different than any other small, unobtrusive American town, a place where everybody knows everyone and rumors, both good and bad, need less than a day’s travel to infiltrate. To outsiders passing along the single two lane highway coursing end to end north and south, nothing appears peculiar and more than likely they will never take the time to watch it fade in rear view mirrors. Those are the lucky ones, never to be burdened by an age old evil far too embedded to loosen grip. The bible makes mention that on occasion, seeking both recruiters and souls, Satan takes human form to traipse the Earth. For the love of God, trust my words, for this is absolutely true. With mine own eyes I have inadvertently seen his horns and hoofed cloves and these ears has heard his demented laughter.
While growing up in Bergholz we had all heard the stories. But, without actual proof, most teens, I was one of them, remain skeptical and treat the truth as nothing more than an old spooky wife’s tale. Well, just as Ramses mocked God bringing death to his own son, our mocking brought something too, but it was far worse than death. Coincidentally, I have no way of knowing who else has been reduced to a mere specter whose soul is called upon in chronic and spiteful eternal whims, my guess would be many.
It was the late 1970’s. A classic time when music was made by instruments instead of computers and dirt covered back roads were lined with littered beer bottles and cans tossed from cars driven by teens exploring Friday and Saturday night party rituals. On such evenings, the four of us, Dan, Terry, Brian and myself, didn’t have a care in the world and our primary concern was getting drunk and throwing empty bottles at barely legible, bullet hole filled rust encrusted signs as we passed.
Brush Creek was a highly secluded area a few short miles northeast of Bergholz. Filled with rippling clear streams, magnificent oaks and rolling, rather steep hills, this region was far off the beaten path and just the right place for a group of beer laced teenagers to avoid authorities. Traveling the cracked paved road could be treacherous, especially since there were no painted lines, but being accustomed and mindful, we never had issues. Along this asphalt road were sparse dirt roads which jettisoned off perpendicular, most appearing as no more than farm tractor paths. Isolation and solitude were the reason why this area was specific and loaded with beer acquired by clandestine means, Friday and Saturday nights were adventurous.
Because he had the best stereo, an older model Pioneer with mind blowing six by nine speakers lying loose in the rear window, Dan’s beat up, mostly grey primer painted Ford Grenada was the transportation of choice. Depending on weather, sometimes we would find ourselves having a makeshift party by an isolated creek, standing around a fire hastily built with empty beer cartons and whatever wood we managed to gather in the darkness. There, as the night progressed, flames flickered to a blaring rock thump. Other times we would simply cruise, less than slow, ensuring our driver having more than adequate time to avoid any potential pitfalls. Of course this was dangerous and stupid, but we did it anyway.
We were also quite familiar with the tales of devil worshippers that supposedly lurked about in this neck of the woods, but since we had never actually seen hide nor hair of them, they were of no concern. To be perfectly honest, seventeen year olds are plump full of cynicism, doubt and temptation.
It was a crisp, late October Friday night and I don’t recall who exactly brought up the idea, but we all agreed it would be an escapade and so out of town we headed, off to hunt what none of us expected to find.
An hour and a half, a few different roads, and a number of beers later, we began losing interest and stopped in the roadside darkness to relieve ourselves. At the time, the irony of listening to an early Black Sabbath 8-track tape, especially a wickedly dark and heavy guitar fortified song describing a meeting with the Grim Reaper evaded, and it is only in hindsight that I see how provocative it truly was. Now maybe I was guided or led by some unrecognizable evil force or maybe it was just plain fate, but while standing in the pitch black at the rear of that battered car, I happened to glance up through jagged, winter impending bare tree branches and thought they oddly looked like long and crooked fingered hands reaching down. The full moon in the clear background was overly large and bright, and as I scrutinized, a strange sensation filled me with dread. Nonetheless, probably blurred by alcohol, for however real the sentiment, I dispatched the notion and concentrated more on the song at hand. I should have listened to the premonition for it was a warning.
Compelled to look again, off in the distance beyond a line of trees was a faint and warm orange glow. Pointing it out to the others, they all initially laughed and implied that I was drunk. Now I admit to being nowhere near sober, but I was also strangely aware and adamant and after looking they saw it too. Standing in a row, we each contemplated what it could be, the general consensus being either lights from a nearby town or a brush fire. Cognizant of the area and knowing that there were no towns for miles around, we agreed to it being the latter and gathered back into the car, off on our next journey.
As previously mentioned, on evenings such as these speed was never a motivating factor and it was this pace that allowed me to spot the road in passing, which wasn’t really a road at all but more of a path hidden by summer’s leftovers of overgrown weeds. That precise terrifying feeling returned much stronger, but again, I didn’t listen. Dan turned the music down and backed the car up, turning and aligning the headlights for closer inspection.
Unable to see beyond the darkness of the entrance, the lane was merely two evenly spaced dirt paths with a raised hump in the center and I’m sure they were each thinking it was just some tractor path leading to a field that was probably laced with ready to harvest corn. Terry wondered aloud whether the orange glow was in that direction and Dan flicked off the headlights. It was and he flipped them back on, put the shifter into drive, and slowly pulled in.
The trees lining the sides slanted in toward one another creating a tunnel effect. Thorny weeds scratched and scraped along the fenders and doors as I looked up through the side window to watch the moon completely disappear above the canopy. An eerie premonition that we would never return filled me and in an attempt to fend it off I slugged down the remains of my can.
The first five hundred or so feet appeared fine and Dan kept the car off to the side of the center mound leaving us leaning a constant slope. But then we came upon deep ruts and could drive no further. Dan turned the car off and we sat in total darkness, the beckoning glow a short distance ahead. We exited and after waiting a few moments for our eyes to adjust, continued on foot.
As we strolled in the dark making objective small talk, Brian made jokes about green faces with long crooked noses spotted with warts and horns protruding from foreheads. Not finding the humor funny at all, I falsely chuckled, not wanting to show weakness.
We came upon a heaped hefty dirt pile in the center of the lane, the orange aura outlining its ridge. At that particular point I wanted nothing more than to turn back, afraid of what was beyond. But, as with the joking, I didn’t convey and simply put on an excited façade and followed the other three clambering to the top. We had been right, it was a field. But instead of corn, it held two majestic oaks with a group of maybe fifteen or twenty folks gathered around a large bonfire located in the center.
With the exception of the one in the middle closest to the fire, whose outfit looked to have streaks of red and symbols we were too far off to distinguish, all wore matching black gowns and corresponding pointed hoods that bobbled from side to side as they swayed in unity. Just as the rest began chanting in accord, the one in the center raised his arms reaching for the sky and the fire flared up. They began leaping around both him and the fire, in one big circle.
Stunned and alarmed, the four of us said nothing and only watched. A feeling of an ominous presence of wickedness filled me and a moment later I grew cognizant enough to look away at my cohorts. In their auburn reflected faces, eyes wide open and dropped jaws offered confirmation that they too felt the same. The chanting grew noticeably and startling louder and with no words exchanged, Dan turned around and started back down the pile. The rest of us followed.
Partway down, compelled for a final look I stopped and turned around. The center one had joined in the dance with the others, but was going in the opposite direction. About to turn back, that leader abruptly stopped, somewhat crouched and seemed to peer in my exact direction. Enveloped by the dark, my confidence at being unseen lasted a mere moment before the gaze burrowed deep impaling my very being and I knew I had been somehow seen. With a yank I spun around and trotted to catch up with my cohorts, motivated by pure fear.
Even while seated in the back of the car, what should have felt like relative safety didn’t and internal quivers remained. Dan started the car. Obviously fearful of being noticed, he left the headlights off, turned and leaned over the front seat, and looked out the rear window. Terry and I took his lead and leaned away giving him full view. It was never stated, but I’m deathly sure we were all hoping that the backing lights sufficed at leading us quickly out and away.
Weeds, shrubs and branches scratched loudly along the sides of the car and with every scrape I jerked, turning to fearfully look, half expecting to see that hooded leader peering creepy in through the window. Never in my life had I thought of pavement as being such a wonderful thing.
Dan dropped the shifter into drive, turned on the headlights, pressed the gas pedal and the car engine revved. But we weren’t moving forward. Dan toggled the shifter to verify it was lodged in drive and it was. He pressed on the pedal again, but still we didn’t go forward. He tried reverse and the car inched backwards. As a test, he dropped it into drive again, but it was to no avail. Perplexed and frightened, positive this had something to do with the hooded clan trying to keep us at bay, the faces on my pals indicated they were thinking the same.
We had two choices, drive in reverse or walk the miles of dark road. It wasn’t hard to decide which choice to make and while Dan adjusted the wheel and used reverse as needed, the three of us pushed and maneuvered the car to get it turned around. I don’t mind saying that while we were doing so, trepidation ran rampant, certain that the cloaked group would appear from the woods at any moment. But they didn’t.
It was slow going, but we made good progress and eventually arrived at the two lone streetlights on the quiet and desolate outskirts of Bergholz where we pulled off to the side to figure how each of us was going to manage getting to our respective homes. We were all looking toward the direction we had just came from when Brian, as usual, made light of the overall situation. In his face I saw that it was only a self-defense mechanism.
Being the small hours somewhere between early witching hour and pre-dawn twilight zone, it was more than assured that Bergholz would be tranquil and undisturbed and we elected to continue backing for as far as we could down Main Street, which would be easy enough since it was perfectly straight.
We piled back into the car again and out of habit I suppose, Dan dropped the shifter into drive. Low and behold the car lurched forward. Needless to say, we were all shocked and even jokester Brian dared not say a word as Dan whipped the car around.
Over the next few days I tried desperately to heave the ungodly sight from my mind but couldn’t. They wouldn’t let me.
Throughout my years of passing fellow citizens while walking about town, cordial smiles and standard greetings were usually offered and there had been nothing peculiar. Following that fateful night, while both genialness and salutations continued, normalcy became abnormal. From the lady behind the post office counter to the elderly gentleman walking his collie to even my school bus driver, a rather large jovial woman that had been entering the diner, something was different, unusual and deviant in their piercing, dead focused staring eyes. Suddenly this awful notion I was being closely monitored developed, snuggling against the existing anxiety, and lying in bed each evening saw me glancing toward the window anticipating one would be acerbically peering back. And then the vicious, brutal and rogue dreams began; every single one more realistic than the previous. While I’m not going to go into the details of bloody sacrifice, demons, wicked and oddly joyful faces and the constant cackling laughter, I will, however, in order for you to fully comprehend and understand, propose recalling your most horrendous nightmare and multiplying it by ten, and even then I’m not entirely sure the reverie will rank on the scale. To say I was conflicted would be an understatement. Perpetual denial fleeted and recognizing the need for professional help plagued. I began assessing the fact that in order to dispel the parasites, truth must be openly spoken.
Disheveled, exhausted and weakened, vivid intuitions told me the worst was yet to come and confirmation came in the form of the mayor, while going to obtain the mail on the following Wednesday.
In deep concentration, having finally decided to confront what had been witnessed, I hadn’t noticed us approaching one another. Upon meeting, the excessively geriatric fellow who walked with a constant limp raised a wrinkled hand and clenched my shoulder, stopping me firm in my tracks. No words were exchanged as he simply leered with a familiar gaze that reminded and I sensed my face going flush. Squeezing my shoulder with surprising strength, a toothless grin pursed up the sides of his face and I felt doom.
That was years ago and I am since all but forgotten. I still see the mayor and many of the townsfolk on certain evenings, when the moon is full and they choose to summon and torture my spirit. Truly evil, compelled by the dark lord himself, just like the majestic two oaks, they never seem to age. Death is so cold and ironically, although it was what they used to send me to my death, I still take solace in trying to soak up the fire’s warmth, but it is of no use. I often wonder whether Dan, Terry and Brian suffered the same fate, but we controlled apparitions are kept tightly secluded in a solitary confinement of dirt and as such, knowing is indefinite.
Yes, there is a ruling class in the town of Bergholz and it is a monarchy that governs with dark obscure. The secure are those who avoid, ignore and go on with their lives. Of course they know. Everyone knows. But it is a conversation never tempted, even in whispers.
Alongside the water tower that boldly affirms the town name, lightly buried are my charred remains. DO NOT make attempts to find nor seek justice, otherwise fear will command and silence will be harshly dictated. You requested information and I simply offered as an aid in eliminating doubt. Nearby, fresh dirt mounds are regular and I don’t want to know your bones are nestled in one.
Wide eyed, Robert held tight the letter, looked smartly at the window and then at the candle in the shot glass on the desk. He would burn it too.