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When I was young’r, I usedta be a bit of a thrill seeker when it came ta the paranormal. I once broke off from my scout troop and pitched tent in a nearby graveyard in the hopes a’ seein’ a ghost. ‘Course nothin’ came of it, but that didn’t discourage me from huntin’ spooks. If there was such a thing as the afterlife, I was determined to get a glimpse of it.

One year, in the fall, we was visitin’ my granparents who lived an hours drive north. Their house was set on the edge of a forest that went for miles, with a river runnin’ through it that tended ta flood in the rainy seasons. High grass surrounded it on all sides, givin’ it a bit of a unkempt look. I had been there a number of times, playin’ in the grass, swimmin’ in the shallower parts o’ the river, catchin’ bugs in the woods.

That day I was sittin’ on the porch with my granfather, listenin’ ta katydids in the long grass. We were rockin’ on the porch swing, not sayin’ nothin’. He just pulled at his beard and picked his teeth with a toothpick. As it got dark, I started noticin’ this glow comin’ from just past the trees at the edge of the woods. Some sorta light that danced around and up and down like a person with a candle jus’ frolickin’ in the bushes. I started ta ask my granfather:

“Grampa, what’s th–”

“Hush!” he said at me in a harsh whisper, “They might hear ya!”

“What are they, Grampa?” I whispered.

“Them’s Will-O’-Wisps.” he said with a nod, “Lost souls, lookin’ for they home.”

“Why are they lost?” I asked.

“‘Cuz they ain’t got no home no more,” he whispered, “‘Cept the grave. An they too stupid to go back there.”

My skin was all aprickle with excitement. It was the closest I’d come ta outright seein’ a ghost, and my granfather saw the gleam in my eye.

“Don’t you go gettin’ it into yer head to go chasin’ them!” he whispered at me, pokin’ me with his toothpick, “They’s just as likely ta lead you to yer own doom, you hear me, boy?”

“Yes, Grampa.” But I had already set myself ta goin’ and was busy plannin’ on how to sneak out in my head while I replied.

Eleven O’Clock seemed awful late ta me back then, but as I slipped outta my bunk and quietly gathered some supplies (flashlight, a compass and some gummie bears), I could hear that the adults were still up an about. I crept downstairs, avoidin’ the step that always creaked (I think every old person’s house has got one, they must come standard), got my jacket and boots from the closet, and slipped out the front door.
My granfather was sittin on the porch step. He looked at me and lit his pipe.

“If you see one a’ them, don’t you go lookin’ em in the eyes,” he said after a couple puffs, “You keep yer head down, an your soul in your chest. If they tries ta lead ya toward the river, you don’t follow. I don’t wanna be fishin’ your corpse out in th’ mornin’, you hear me?”

“Yes, Grampa.” I said, and hugged him. He patted me on the head with his pipe then brushed off some ash he got in my hair before turnin’ me toward the dark woods. I could still see lights dancin’ among the trees faintly.

“Git.” He said, and I got to gittin’.

Most of the trees in the woods were old and gnarled, with branches that hung low an liked ta catch on yer shirt and in your hair. As I passed the tree line and started havin’ ta duck and sidestep ta keep quiet, the forest challenged me by havin’ all the skeeterin’ bugs and chitterin’ squirrels drop dead silent, leavin’ me with just the sound of limbs swayin’ in the wind and the crunch o’ moss under my feet. I started ta get prickles on the back of my neck, that feelin of excitement that I always got when confrontin’ a mystery.

Up ahead, the glow o’ the dancin’ lights intensified. It was a blue color, settin’ the tree trunks afire with its aura. As I got nearer still, it felt like the trees were comin’ alive from the light. The branches seemed to hang down lower, makin’ me crouch to avoid gettin’ snagged, and the shadows on the trunks made faces, snarlin’ at me. I didn’t care really, they added to the flavor of the moment. I was set ready to burst with excitement, every second thinkin’ the light source’d be around the next tree.

But then the air got chiller, nippin’ at my hands and face. The light that seemed on the verge o’ settin’ the whole thicket ablaze started ebbin’, fallin’ away from me. I panicked, worried I was goin’ ta miss it, and started to pick up the pace, no longer concerned about avoidin’ the branches. They scraped my face, tore my jacket in places, but I didn’t even notice at the time. I hurried faster to catch up, but the faster I hurried, it seemed like the faster the light started ta fade. My granfather’s warning was well forgot at that point, all I cared about was seein’ the ghost.

The whole forest went dark. I turned on my flashlight, but the weak beam barely cut through the dense foliage. As my breathin’ slowed, I could hear the sound of runnin’ water, very close. It echoed off the trees, makin’ the sound come from all ’round me. I leveled my flashlight and just kept walkin’ forward, my ears pricked for the slightest change in the sound.

Somehow, I tripped up onto wooden planks. I hadn’t even seen the bridge, I was so busy lookin’ straight ahead and not half a mind to lookin’ down at my feet. The trees came up so close to the edge of the river that if the bridge hadn’t been there, I’da walked myself right in to a watery grave. The river was about five feet wide and dark enough to make me think it had no bottom. I’d played in a section of it before durin’ the day, but that was shallow and wider, like the river was flattenin’ out. This was thin and probably deep enough to make fordin’ on foot a danger.

The bridge curved up slightly, and I followed it to the middle of the river, then shone my light down the path of the water. I was feelin’ disappointed that the wisps seemed to be gone, but not afeared for myself ‘cuz I knew that I could follow the river and find my way out once I got to the shallower part. I stood there a while, losin’ track o time, jus’ listenin’ to the water bubblin’ beneath me. My feelin’ of excitement started ta dwindle and I began ta think about what my granfather had tol’ me.

I was jus’ startin’ ta consider headin’ back when from behind me came a kinda sighin’ sound, just the slightest exhalin’ of air. As I turned ta see the source, two things happened: first, somethin’ came up ‘tween the boards of the bridge and wrapped ’round my ankle. It felt like a hand, and it startled me ta be sure. Second, there was a gentle push from right behind me, like a pair o hands ever so slightly urgin’ me in the other direction. Combined, the two things had the effect o throwin’ me offa my balance and I felt myself tippin’ head over biscuits inta the icy water.

It was a abrupt and discomfortin’ shock, goin’ under. The water was deeper than I had even imagined, and I felt somethin’ hard strike the back of my head, disorientin’ me further. The current was pullin’ me away from the bridge, but I didn’t fight it, I just struggled ta right myself and get my head up. Every motion stung my skin like a hundred knives, like my granfather needlin’ me with his toothpick all over my body. The cold made my muscles ache bad. I surfaced with a scream.

There was blue light everywheres. The forest was all bathed in it again. I struggled to keep above water, but took the opportunity to open my eyes. The river was lined with people, about a dozen of ’em. I couldn’t make out their features, just their clothes, but I couldn’t give no details ‘cuz everythin’ was washed out by that blue glow. It was comin’ from candles and lanterns they each carried. One of ’em had a stick with a fire on the end of it. My vision was blurry, but I could see all the candles and lantern wicks and that stick and the fire comin’ offa them was the same blue.

“Help,” I sputtered.

They cocked their heads at me, like a dog would do when it don’t understand yer order. then one of ’em stepped forward. He was wearin’ overalls and huge boots caked in mud. He had a broad-rimmed hat that masked his face. He didn’t say a thing, just reached his arm out toward me. His sleeve was torn up and I could see the flesh under it was also missin’ in places. Feelin’ a might glad I couldn’t see his face, I reached back fer him, but he ignored my hands and put his on the top of my head. He started ta shove me back down into the freezin’ water. I yelled again before gettin’ submerged.

I don’t know how long that ghost held me under. Time’s kinda meaninless when yer drownin’. I could see their blue lights wavin’ through the surface of the water, like they was wavin’ goodbye ta me as I died. I thought my lungs were gonna explode. Everything went black, but I felt like I was still conscious, so I thought “I’m dyin’…”

There was a loud splash and I felt something liftin’ me up. I thought it was angels come to take me to Heaven. I was dropped hard on the river bank and started acoughin’ and sputterin’, chokin’ on water. The forest was dark again, ‘cept for the light of my flashlight that was layin’ over on the bridge some feet away. I rolled over onta my back and heard my Granfather’s voice.

“Yer safe fer now,” he didn’t sound angry, and I felt a bit of relief through alla my shiverin’, “confounded idgit, I done told ya not ta follow em ta the river!” I guess he was a bit angry after all. He started pullin’ at my clothes, tryin’ ta get me to stand up but I was spent from strugglin’ in the water.

“Git up, confound it! We ain’t outta the woods yet!”

I pulled myself to my hands and knees and crawled a bit ‘fore he spat in frustration and picked me up, slingin’ me over his shoulder. He started workin’ his way back through the woods like he had a GPS pointin’ the way, just straight as an arrow back toward his house. I’ll never figger out how he was able to navigate in that dark. Sometimes, he’d let a branch snap back and swat me in the back of the head. I guess he was makin’ up for not bein’ able to give me a switchin’ right then and there.

I could see nothin’ but darkness behind us, ’til we cleared the edge o’ the woods. As Grampa trudged the high grass to the house, I saw the blue lights slowly begin to reappear. As we went up the porch steps, the forest was alive again with their dancin’, save one. At the tree line I could just make out one blue light, and the figure standin’ there holdin’ it.

I got a mean scoldin’ from my folks after Grampa stomped into the house with me slung over his shoulder, wet as a seal and frozen ta the bone, and told ’em to make room by the fire for me. I was changed outta my wet clothes, dried off, givin’ some hot tea to drink and asked a hunderd questions. I told ’em about the ghosts and the blue lights and bein pushed inta the river, but besides my granfather who stood there quiet and lookin’ a lil sad, nobody believed me. My granfather went into his room and changed outta his own wet clothes, then disappeared onta the front porch with his pipe. I got put to bed sometime around 1:30 after they was sure I was dry and warm.

I’d like ta say that was the end of the story, but it’s not. What I didn’t know, what even my granfather didn’t know was that once you get their attention, wisps don’t jus’ go back ta wanderin’ aimlessly. Like he told me that night on the porch, they’re lookin’ fer a home, and they don’t got the brains ta get back in their graves.

We went home the next day, sayin’ goodbye to my granfather and granmother. I hugged Grampa tight and told him I was sorry fer not listenin’ to his warnings, and promising that next time we visited I’d be more careful. He ruffled my hair and told me, “Git.”

A week later, my parents got a phone call from the police out where my granparents lived. They had both passed away, apparently on the same night. The neighbors didn’t notice nothin’ strange ‘cuz they saw lights in the windows every night and thought everything was fine. It wasn’t ’til the mail started pilin’ up in the mailbox that anybody went and took a look. My Gramma was lyin’ in her knittin’ chair with her head just hangin’ down. Apparently she died while knittin’ a scarf for me. My granfather was found under the bed. He had choked on his tongue and turned purplish from it. They think he rolled under the bed while fightin’ ta breathe. I think he got dragged under the bed.

Nobody lives in the house now. It’s fallen inta ruin and disrepair. We went by years later and there was this stink that drove us out. My father called an exterminator and the guy reported findin’ a nest of dead raccoons under the kitchen sink. He also said the gutter was full o’ dead birds and the property was swiss-cheesed with snake holes, but he hadn’t found any snakes. I wager nothin’ can live there anymore… the wisps have claimed it for themselves.

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2 Comments

  1. Great stuff. Daunting! Loved reading it.
    Your style is unmistakeable throughout the piece.

    • Thank you very much! It’s always a pleasure to get the opinion of another writer. 🙂


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