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My grandmother, Zelda, owns a beautifully modest country home in the woods of northern Michigan. It's considerably secluded, with the nearest neighbor being around a mile away. In place of a neighborhood is an inspiring view from the back enclosed balcony, which looks out over a gentle grassy slope lying before an oblong lake. All of it is surrounded, almost choked, by a mixture of coniferous and deciduous trees, the former being more common. Out front, her long paved driveway extends to meet the seldom traveled country road.
All in all, it's quiet and charming — fitting for the old lady, whose only companion is her black tabby cat, Beethoven, and during recent summers, myself, who I will call Jill.
I began to visit my grandmother Zelda when I was thirteen, having begun to take violin lessons from her (my parents having decided that it would be much cheaper than hiring a professional tutor). That aside, I have to say that her home overwhelmed me upon my first visit. Never in my life had I seen such natural beauty, as previously I'd lived only in urban Grand Rapids and, later and currently, Traverse City. I was in love with the place, and spent much of my time when not practicing my violin on the back deck or on the quaint beach. The two first summers flew by, and at the end of both I was sad to go when my parents came to pick me up.
I've said that my grandmother's place is beautiful and pure, but there's something more. Part of what overwhelmed me when I first visited the place was an innate sense of strangeness that I couldn't precisely pinpoint. It wasn't the house. That was and still is perfectly normal in every respect. My first thought was that the woods were what unsettled me, or the isolation, or the quiet. It was all so new to me, so I chalked it up to a simple form of dendrophobia.
But that subtle unease persisted all through the first summer, and was at its strongest at nightfall. In particular, I can freshly remember lying awake at night in my bed and staring toward the screen window, half anticipating something to appear in it and gaze in at me. Nothing ever did, of course, but the abstract worry was still there. When I left at the end of August, the unease died down over the school year, but on my return in the following June, it came back just as strongly and lasted all through that summer, too.
I recall spotting something small scurrying by the lakeshore at dawn sometime in mid July, but the early light and my sleepiness made me reconsider my sighting after the thing apparently vanished into the water. That was the sole strange incident of that second summer.
This story isn't about those first two summers. This story is about the third and most recent summer, and the one which has convinced me to never return to those woods in northern Michigan, or in the very least not the area surrounding my grandmother Zelda's home. Even at the cost of my free violin lessons, I'm determined to not go back again.
That June began as usual. My parents dropped me off at my grandmother's house, we all sat inside and drank tea and caught up on each other's most recent business, and then they left. I spent some time after my parents left questioning whether my grandmother ever felt uncomfortable alone in those woods — it was the first time that I'd ever thought to ask, since in previous years I'd been more of an unquestioning kid. To my discontent, she answered that she hadn't, in fact, ever felt even slightly at unease. She didn't waver in the slightest when giving her answer.
Up until the third week, everything was normal. Admittedly, I spent less time playing my violin in favor of wandering the treeline (but never straying far from the house), but that didn't bother my grandmother, who remarked that she was happy to see me outside and enjoying the natural surroundings rather than staying cooped up practicing or writing. I did enjoy being outdoors there, I learned — and some of that old unease finally started to melt away the more that I familiarized myself with the land.
And then Beethoven disappeared.
He sneaked out sometime during the night through the screen window in my room. Neither my grandmother or myself knew until the morning, when I discovered the gaping hole clawed into it. I showed it to my grandma after I heard her calling for Beethoven in another room, and then we both came to the unexpected conclusion that he had escaped. It was completely unlike him, she commented. Beethoven had been an indoor cat ever since he was a kitten, and after being neutered he was rendered even more deeply passive to the outdoors.
We called off the violin lessons for that day and instead spent time searching for Beethoven, first around the lakeshore and then a little way into the woods. We accepted defeat when the sun started to set at close to ten o'clock at night. My grandmother retreated first, calmly announcing that she would prepare tea for me to have once I returned. I stayed outside for a while longer, sad at the loss and pitifully willing to keep looking.
At the time, I thought that the dim lighting was interfering with my sight, but I saw an unnatural white furry form scramble from behind one tree to another. It caught me off-guard and spiked my curiosity (while at the same time reviving my apprehension about the place), and in an instinctive response I ventured to the tree where the scruffy form settled — and discovered, to my immense surprise, Beethoven. The squeaky cry that he let out surprised me but relieved me at the same time, although something was markedly different about his sleek black coat (perhaps a touch of white that I hadn't noticed before?). It wasn't readily placeable, but I cast that aside in my relief.
I returned to my grandmother's house with the good news, delighting her greatly. The remainder of the night passed without incident. I drank a cup of tea, ate a light dinner, and then went to bed (making certain to shut my window so that mosquitos wouldn't enter through the hole in the screen). That night, as I lay falling asleep, I noticed a twinge of discomfort rising again, but it felt somehow closer.
Beethoven vanished again the next week. Another night of searching, and he turned up sitting on the front porch... with blood on his face, and a few torn feathers in his mouth. I reeled in disgust, as did my grandmother, who hastily took to wiping the foul remnants from his mouth. Things continued this way for the rest of July. Beethoven would disappear into thin air every now and then, always returning at nightfall with some grisly trophy, be it blood, a feather or two, or the paw of a squirrel or chipmunk. Once, he returned with an eerie tuft of black fur, the origin of which we couldn't place.
"I guess he's just had a change of heart," my grandmother Zelda said uncertainly.
Only once did I catch Beethoven in the act of sneaking out, and only once did I follow. It's important for me to note that this was, as far as I know, the only instance where Beethoven escaped in the night, and also the only one where he escaped while in my plain sight on the balcony. My grandma was already asleep, and I had just finished my violin solo, when Beethoven crept stealthily through the open door and strolled past me before effortlessly descending the steps to the ground, and seemingly being absorbed into the woods in my sight.
I decided to follow, leaving my violin behind and grabbing a flashlight.
The trek through the woods was perilous in slippers, but I managed anyway. Every now and then, I thought I caught a glimpse of Beethoven somewhere ahead, and sometimes — never while observing Beethoven — I saw a tiny white blur in the corner of my eye, only to see nothing when I focused on it acutely. Eventually, I started to notice tints of dark redness on the leaves of ground-covering plants, and a feather or tiny bone here and there. My breathing pacened alongside my heartbeat as the unease flowered.
I haven't seen anything as horrible as what I found in a small artificial clearing that night. Just when I thought I'd finally caught up with Beethoven, I stumbled upon something infinitely worse — it was an area where whatever miscellaneous leaves and plants that had covered the ground had been swept away, and the soil had been deliberately flattened. Also present were miniature structures of sticks and pebbles, comparable to little shrines. Under a nearby tree root, I spied what appeared to be the entrance of a den. But what adorned this clearing is what horrified me and still does.
In short: a menagerie of animal remains, from rodents to birds to even fish. Small bones and skulls were scattered about in various stages of decay, with feathers and fur intermittently placed. Among the vile mess, I saw an incomplete black form — the rotting corpse of Beethoven. Chills ran through my body. There was no logic or reason. Then, when all else had ceased to make sense, there came the sound of rustling behind me. I swung around to see, shining my flashlight beam on Beethoven, whose back was arched in a show of contempt. I screamed, and as I did so, his body transformed before my eyes.
The noise was awful as his body twisted into something unrecognizable but somehow familiar, popping and gurgling — but it all made sense to me as I watched that single white spot in his fur overtake his whole shrinking body until he was a pure white ball of fuzz. That wasn't all, though. It had tiny limbs with smaller jagged nails, and an unmistakably human face, however scaled down and distorted.
It was a goblin.
I dropped my flashlight then, and I think that it's a good thing that I did, because I feel that that goblin wasn't able to see in the dark, and carrying that flashlight would have given my location away as I sprinted through the woods, losing both slippers along the frantic way. As I ran, I heard the disturbing grunts of the thing coming and going, near and then far, but it never found me. I didn't say a word to my grandmother when I returned. I didn't even wake her. The only thing that I did was close the balcony door tightly, shut and lock every window I could access, and laid down and shivered under the blankets of my bed while a painfully regular tapping commenced at my window and out of my sight.
That next morning, I informed my grandmother that I wished to leave. I couldn't give her a forward reason when she asked why, and to this day I still feel awful for making her feel so hurt. But I was left with no other choice, because that morning, she let Beethoven back inside. He stared at me later that day as I made the phone call to my parents.
I don't dare tell my poor grandmother Zelda what happened in those woods. I only pray that nothing comes to harm her, while regretfully understanding that if anything bad comes of the situation, it's more or less my fault. Those mysterious northern Michigan woods — I don't know what to make of them anymore.