The Pine Barrens
The following was a bundle of letters found in an old preacher’s basement.
My name is Everett Michael Burns and I am ashamed to say I am 125 years old. I have all the documentation to prove it, contained in this envelope. I currently live on the southern edge of the redwoods forests in California, but this wasn’t always so. I was born and raised in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, in a town named Leed’s Point. Now, it’s just a wide spot in the road. But back in 1903, I experienced something there that I haven’t spoken of to date. I am breaking my silence now because a debt I owe is finally due.
In the summer of 1903, I was 16 years old, with only the cares of a girl down the street and where my next nickel was coming from. In my spare time, I could be found wandering out in the pine thickets, hunting the squirrels and fishing in the several brooks that ran through my daddy’s 59 acres. Sometimes, Abigail and I would go together, and we’d sit in the tops of the trees and ride out the occasional afternoon thunderstorm. Once in a while, I would dare to steal a kiss, and Abigail would giggle. These days, it’s considered unwise for a couple so young to get married, but back then, tons of folks got married when they hit 18, and we were happy in knowing that we could. But, on July 3rd of that bastard of a summer, I lost her, and I prayed to a God that I no longer believe in for a chance to get her back.
July 2nd started just like any other day. I woke up before sunrise with Daddy, helped him feed the few cows we had, and rode my horse, Zip, down to the drugstore for a newspaper. The only important thing I remember reading in it was the Ed Delahanty had died, an old baseball player that not many even recollect. We also had a town picnic planned every July 4th, and the back page had a bit about that. Anyhow, I was jabbering with a man on the corner outside the general store when Zip started acting all skiddish.
I got ‘em settled down just in time to see the shadow pass below me. At first I thought it was just an old sandy crane, flying lower than usual, but I looked up and saw something a good bit bigger. It was right in the sun, so I couldn’t see much more than a silhouette, but it looked like a pegasus with someone riding it. And I would swear on my old leather Bible that it had a forked tail.
The man I’d been conversing with saw it too. We just looked back at each other with a “What the blazes was that?!” look on our faces, and then back up at the sky. It was gone. We searched the horizon with our hands over our brows, but didn’t see anything. I don’t remember exactly what the man said to me after that, but it was something about needing to get home.
I galloped Zip home, careful not to exert him too much because it was particularly hot that year. I stopped by Abigail’s to see if she’d seen it too, but after offering me some pie, her mother said she had gone out picking blackberries for the town picnic. I told her how obliged I was for the pie and went on home.
At home, I told Daddy what I’d seen, and he laughed that low, sort of Santa like laugh that said I was just a youngster that had spent too much time in the sun.
I went to sleep that night feeling a little uneasy. It wasn’t very often in the summer that I didn’t see Abigail for a whole day, and on top of that I saw…something. I kept telling myself that daddy was right, that I had been too long in the sun and looking right into it had caused me to see things that weren’t there. But you have to understand, dybbuks, devils, and the like weren’t considered impossibility back then. Science and medicine hadn’t come so far, and people still thought that a ghost was something as simple as a cold spot in the road. Not to mention, I was a naturally curious boy. I wanted to know what I saw.
It seemed like I’d only been asleep for a couple minutes when daddy was waking me up with a candle in his hand. I got the feeling pretty quick that something wasn’t quite right. I heard voices in the kitchen. Daddy had a face on that said not to ask questions. I got up, pulled on my overalls and boots, and went through the swinging door into the next room. Abigail’s mother was sitting in Daddy’s old rocking chair, crying. A few of the other men from town were out on the front porch, talking in almost whispers. I could see one had an old Remington side by side through the front window.
“Abigail didn’t come home tonight.” Daddy whispered, as I walked out on the porch.
My heart almost bounded out of my chest as I ran through a whole list of places she could be. But according to the old clock in the living room, it was almost two in the morning. Abigail wasn’t one to disobey her mother. Her father, God rest him, had raised her right, and when he died working on the railroad it tore her up. She followed his rules almost as a memorial, and her mother almost never had to discipline her. It was unheard of to be out past night fall, unless she was with Daddy and I.
I told the men that the only place she might be would the old blackberry bushes out by Briar Creek, where we would fish sometimes. With nothing else to start with, Daddy and the rest of them mounted their horses and set off. No one told me to stay behind. I think they knew it would have been useless.
We rode in silence except for the clopping of our horses’ hooves.
I found myself wandering deeper into the woods, having separated from the group hours before. I had tied Zip up back at the edge of the forest because the trees were going to be too thick for him to be any use. I was back in there farther than I’d ever been. Our back 20 acres had ended a couple hours ago when I went under our barb wire fence. The pine trees grew steadily bigger around, and the briar patches cut my arms as they became almost impossible to avoid. The wind-up pocket watch my grandfather had left me told me it was almost eight in the morning, but the thick trees made it seem much earlier, allowing only a few rays of sunshine to reach the pine needle carpet below. Eventually, the needles got so thick that nothing grew through them, and I remember thinking how relieved I was to be free of all the sticker bushes when I saw the damndest thing.
The trees thinned to form a small meadow full of dead grass, and in the middle stood a tree the likes of which I’d never seen, and never have again. It seemed like an oak tree, but it wasn’t at the right height for its girth. Five men couldn’t have reached around it if they’d been holding hands, but the leafless branches were coming off low enough for me to reach up and grab ‘em. The tree’s crown spread out so far that it put the most of the meadow under its shadow, and that meadow was almost the size of a baseball diamond’s infield. But despite all that, it wasn’t what had my undivided attention. No, what caught my eye was the big hollow at the bottom, betwixt two of its massive roots.
Abigail had given me the story of Alice and the rabbit hole. This one was definitely big enough for Alice, maybe even a horse, but I definitely didn’t want to find out where it led to. As I got closer, I could hear a low buzzing, like a bee hive or a bunch of flies on a carcass. I got close enough to see down the hole, but got no closer. The bug sound was definitely coming from down in there. I stared down only for another moment before it suddenly stopped, and I heard the dead grass breaking behind me.
I saw it clearly for the first time. A pegasus stood not 20 feet from me, stomping the earth with its nailed hooves. I followed its legs up, seeing its fur, the color of blood when it’s been out in the air too long. Its wings were leathery and veined, like a bat’s, and as they folded down, they revealed the creature’s rider- a pale man, the whiteness of his skin outdone only by his clothing. He had bright blonde hair and dark eyes, and his gaze made the hair on my arms stand up.
I took a few steps back, tripping over a tree root and falling flat on my back. I heard the man come off his horse as I got back to my feet.
“Hello there,” he said, in a voice as sharp as a razor, but smoother than the leather you’d sharpen it on, “I suppose you must be Mr. Burns. I thought you might find your way here, strong spirited as you are.”
I stood there, still afraid to say much of value. The fact that he knew my name although we’d never met hadn’t occurred to me. I opened my mouth to say something, anything, but all I could do was look from that ruined stallion back to its jockey, in disbelief.
“Oh, speechless I see,” he continued, “Well, I have that effect on most of the people I encounter…something about my pallor, I suppose.”
With that, he walked to his monstrosity’s front end and patted him on the snout just before feeding him something that looked like an oversized chicken liver. He patted it again, and kept on.
“Still looking for your friend, I presume? How silly of me, of course you are. Well, I’m pleased to inform you that she is perfectly safe, for the moment…oh come now, let’s do away with that oafish jaw-flapping…you’ll swallow a fly.”
Something about his taunting gave me the swift kick in the ass I needed to speak up.
“Yeah, I’m lookin’ for her. I reckon you know where she is, by what you just said. I’d like her back, if you feel so obliged.” I stammered.
“Well of course, I expected as much. And you have manners! What a surprise...humans seemed to lose their etiquette decades ago, but you sir, are an exception. Americans especially…they are sooo…unrefined. But I digress…I will return her to you in due time, but of course that is contingent on your…submission. Are you willing to negotiate?”
The man spoke with the giddiness of a small child excited about a new toy to play with, but I swear up and down that he had plenty more smarts than he let on. He was trying to play opossum with me. He already knew I would have done anything for Abigail. He’d caught me at a time when hormones were doing most of my thinking, and he would have bet the farm on it.
“I’m not leaving here without her. What do you want?” I choked out.
“Now, now, don’t lose your cool Mr. Burns, or the outcome of your predicament will not conclude in your favor. So, back to business. I only ask for what I would call a projection…most people here call it a soul…oh I see the alarm on your face, but not to worry. It’s quite a painless process, I assure you, and you don’t lose your soul, presently. In actuality, you would merely be providing me with a voucher, implying rights to it when you…expire.”
He cackled with amusement after he finished up, and my mind had been runnin’ faster than a greyhound for a rabbit since he’d started. How on earth did this man plan on taking my eternal soul? Could he actually do it? At first, I doubted it, but then I looked back at his pet. Something like that I had only read about in some Greek story book, and someone just fooling around wouldn’t just happen to have somethin’ the world didn’t even believe to exist. I thought hard about my next words.
“So, you’d like my soul?” I asked, and he simply nodded in agreement, a flat look on his face. “So, pretty much, it just belongs to you when I die?”
That is correct, my young friend,” he replied, “All you have to do is consume one of those delectable fungi over there.”
He pointed to a small patch of dark brown toadstools growing near the base of the big oak. They were small, but there were a lot. I didn’t like the idea of eating a mushroom I’d never laid eyes on before.
“How do I know it won’t just kill me and let you ride off into the sunset?” I asked.
“Ah, a clever one you are. Quite simply, my boy, you don’t. All I can do is promise you that after you eat it, you will lose consciousness, and when you awaken, you will find yourself at home in your bed, and Abigail will be safe and sound back with her mother, with no memory of her little ordeal. You will both be happy together, but if I may be so bold, does it really even matter if I can promise you anything? Would life be worth living to you without her?”
He had me.
“I’spose not.” I spat.
“Stupendous. Now, I can comfort you further by saying that I desire your soul more than anyone else’s at this very moment. Not many like you present themselves. I suppose that’s irrelevant when you have infinity to search, but nevertheless, I must obtain it for my collection. If you die here, who knows where your spirit will go? I need control before it is released, so if you please.”
He pointed me to his mushrooms, and I went to them, wondering what I had gotten myself into. It seemed pretty simple- eat a mushroom, get Abigail back. So what if I gave up my soul? It was worth it to save my girl.
I reached down and tried to find the smallest one I could. I picked one, and after a minute I finally worked up the nerve to put it in my mouth. It felt slimy and unnaturally cold for the summer heat. I looked at the man, fully immersed in the grooming of his…animal, and continued chewing, swallowing the bits as quickly as I could to get rid of the taste. It was awful, worse than the toad I’d licked as a youngster, playing like one of those folks from the old Grimm’s book. The last thing I remember before the lights went out was the pale man, looking at me like a lion at a lamb chop, a triumphant smile on his face.
I woke up the next morning, in my own bed, as promised. I shot up and looked around the room, wondering how I’d gotten there. Then I remembered the man and his pegasus. “It had to of been a dream.” I thought to myself, but I still had the taste of that mushroom in the back of my throat.
I put on my shirt and overalls, trying to get my noggin around what had happened. I finally got my boots on, and rushed through the house looking for Daddy. He wasn’t around, so I went out the front door, headed for Abigail’s.
She was on her front porch swing, humming and reading a hymnal. My heart leaped at the sight of her.
I never asked her about what happened or what she remembered. She just told me she’d fallen asleep in a tree with her book and hadn’t woken up till the next day. As for me, Daddy said that the search was called off when she finally turned up, and I’d returned a couple hours later and gone to bed without a word. He’d given me my space because he figured I was beat.
Abigail and I got hitched two years later, and eventually I rarely thought about that day out in the Pine Barrens. Right afterwards, lots of people were talkin’ about what they’d seen flying through the sky that day, people all over New Jersey, in fact. But I kept my mouth shut, afraid to speak of any of it.
We had six wonderful children, three boys and girls each. I got pretty good at breeding horses, and made a fair amount at it. We were happy for almost 15 years, until one day the county sheriff came to my door carryin’ my son’s hat.
He’d been out makin’ his rounds selling the paper, and dropped some of them. They went blowin’ across the place, and he ran after them, not watching where he was going. He had run up on the town’s old, dry well, and gone right over the side, his hat comin’ off as he did. His neck had broke when he hit the bottom. A freak accident, they’d told me.
My wife and I took it hard. It took us almost two years to get back to normal, and just when things started seeming okay, our next oldest died, in a way I prefer not to recollect. She was beautiful…
I’m gonna make the rest quick. The rest of Abigail and I’s children died one by one, each death as violent as the next, over the next three years. We endured what no parents should, having to bury our own children. I had begun suspecting that I had been overcharged back on that day in the woods when our second child died. By the time our last one was gone, I had decided that I would jump off the dam down river. I got as far as the road across it, but then I couldn’t do it to Abigail. She had been through just as much, and she was being so strong. It wasn’t fair for me to be a coward.
Then, on my 45th birthday, Abigail went to the doctor because she just couldn’t find any energy. All the doctors in New Jersey knew it was a blood problem, but they couldn’t figure out exactly what. Everything they tried seemed to work for a while, and then became completely useless. She struggled through it for 20 years. Some days, Abigail would be almost normal, but on others, she would cry out from bed to our dead children. It chilled me to the bone, and I couldn’t stand to watch her waste away, knowing that every minute of it was my doin’. She suffered until she was 64 years old, and finally, gracefully, she passed.
So here I am, 125 years old. I watched all my children die horribly, and watched my only love struggle against the dark for two decades. I’ve seen things no father or husband should, and something has kept me here for 60 years to keep reliving it every night. But I can’t do it anymore.
I’ve written these letters for whoever finds me, mercifully lifeless on this alter. I just need someone to know that on that day so many years ago, I looked down that hollow and witnessed the depths of Hell. I turned around, and struck a deal with its keeper.
Everett Michael Burns