In the gloaming of the year, when trees’ bark shrinks and holds fast to the mighty trunk; when the life-filled woods are stripped of those merry, clamorous sounds which bespeak a nature of anything but gloom; when all the shade-giving leaves are robbed from the canopy and replaced instead with an ever-present atmosphere of shade-ridden air, oppressive and dank; when nature’s flesh becomes bone, and New England sheds her bitter skin—just in this darkest, dreariest time—I am accustomed to make a journey to visit my uncle. He lives not far from my house, in the nestled hills to the north, where the lonesome winter is always close, and need but extend a finger to claim the region in ice and snow, no matter the season.
It was at the advent of such a visit, when November was fast waning, and the light had gradually withdrawn from the chilling sky, that glacial clouds moved in, washing the grey land in a different, negative light. This sable glow suffused my home, creeping on mummer’s feet to inhabit every inch, like a bad-tempered, immovable squatter with intentions to stay for an indefinite period. I have heard tell from many acquaintances of how the perishing season hangs low upon their mood, pressing heavily on their muscles and denying the mind of pleasurable thoughts—but I confess it had never seen fit to harass me in such a manner. In fact, it was a time of the year I looked to with patient nostalgia, delighting in the long hours of darkness, the better to focus my thoughts on intellectual matters, with little to distract me—save the occasional squawk of a migrating goose, or the crow’s coarse cough.
Alas, no more! Now I await that portion of the year with intense, unmanageable dread. With terror do I behold the first leaf to quiver and fall, or watch the days grow steadily shorter and the warm light fade utterly away, leaving me in blackness. Sable, ebony and obsidian! These are the colours of that season of death, of demise. Oh, to have winter! The fantastic ice and snow, so white, so bright to my eyes! The cold that keeps me locked away those nights, and the sun that wakes me! Ah, for winter to come swiftly, and not to let this long age of falling, of rot and detritus persist. For it is the winding down of the clock, the stripping of the carcass that works such ruin on my fevered mind. I cannot—I will not—endure it again.
Even now, I feel that horror stealing upon me by inescapable degrees, even as the leaves stay fast on the branches, and the sun still beats on my shoulders. It is all in my mind—it must be!—for to admit it as real—oh, wicked horror! My uncle—oh!
As I put my pen to this page, I tremble to imagine the consequences my words may bring. Will they expose the truth for falsehood? Make the falsehood true? My thoughts are at odds with reality, my fancies governing my will. It cannot be true what I saw near a decade ago; and, in faith, I know my uncle to be alive and well, as I have sometimes received a letter from him—but not since that most disturbing happenstance have I ventured to his house. For I cannot—I will not—go back.
It was a day to champion night, wrapped in all the splendour of darkness and cold, but for the accident that it came when one could see and move about in its hefty berth. The condemned leaves scuttled across the ground, cackling and hissing as they went like so many awful hags. I took the road to my uncle’s house with a calm and meditative air, on foot—though truly, the way was rather long for that, but I enjoyed the journey—and the sepulchral atmosphere did not agitate me then. As I said before, I was that wretch who did not fear the dark; rather, I relished in it, and saw nothing in the leaves’ dreadful susurrus to upset my good humour.
Woe to he who ignores the signs, even as they parade across his path! That night in day’s semblance…no sane man would have chosen it, as I did, for sauntering. In the long years since that day, I have never seen one like it, never one so absolute in midnight, in black and inky mantle. Ah, what wretch! To choose that most forbidding of hours—was I not blind?
Too late, now, to go back. I have begun to record the events, and I cannot stop before it’s done.
The sun never rose that day; yet I, with blithe and elevated spirit, packed my haversack and made ready to spend the forenoon walking to the hills. By afternoon I should reach my uncle’s home, and there I’d stay the night, and go hunting with him the following morn. I never made it to that hunt, and I shouldn’t think I would be alive today if I had.
It began with the leaves across my path, skittering like horrid spiders on clackity legs. I beheld that they came only from the east, though the wind seemed to buffet me this way and that, laying a harsh blow upon my face no matter where I turned. Undeterred, young as I was, I merely tugged my collar up to settle more snugly around my neck, and forged on, humming to myself above the building gale.
Not far into the darkling morn, I reached those dense woods that squat about the base of hills, draping their branches upon their neighbours like drunken fellows. They stumbled up the incline in uneven rows, and in daylight, I was able to see the unsteadiest members fallen to the earth, branching coattails sprawled in inebriated disgrace. I was in the habit of looking upon those unhappy revellers and seeing in their rotting forms and peeling bark a keen commentary on the brevity of life; but on that morning, I could see nothing past a half dozen steps at a time, and the woods were so impregnably black, it might have been midnight in Alaskan winter.
Oh, if I had but meditated on the tenuous nature of life that day, and turned back before it was too late! But I was a stalwart young man, afraid of nothing, with a mind so honed in logic that it could summon no fancies to inhabit the solemn darkness. Resettling my haversack I forged on into the sober woods, leaves slithering across my path, and the wind ever worsening, so that when I stepped beneath the emaciated trees I was caught in a veritable storm of air, my breath snatched away without preamble. I looked up in awe—aye, not fear, so help my soul—to behold the spindly arms of those drunken revellers sweeping and dancing against the near-black sky, though it was not yet noon, and their violent movement bespoke to me a kind of poetry; so I stood, mesmerised, feeling the beating of the winter wind against my back, cutting away snatches of breath to fuel its fury. And I was not afraid, but fancied I heard a meditative rumble, like distant thunder echoing through the midnight woods. It occurred to me that such a purr might herald a storm, but I calculated that I would be well nigh to my uncle’s house before any such tumult might strike—so I was as yet unperturbed.
When I had stood for a time beneath that maelstrom of branches, whistling and striking one another in violent melee, I lowered my face, kicked away some leaves that had sought refuge about my feet, quivering against the persistent eastern force that drove them ever across my path, and made ready to continue. The day was now very dark indeed, and it occurred to me that mayhap the night would come earlier than I predicted. And so, with a sense of practical—yet not desperate—urgency, I set off again at a quickened pace.
Each stride brought harsher winds, and now the leaves were so copious about my feet that I was accompanied every step by a clamour of scratching and crumbling, until I fancied I was wading through bones, rather than leaves. The darkness was so absolute that I found I could no longer see the path I followed, and was surprised when I wandered too far to one side or the other, encountering a looming trunk. Many times, I put my hand out and touched the bark before I stumbled headlong into the skeletal tree—and I was amazed to find the rough surface studded and pockmarked with sores, as if some acid had been thrown against it. Each and every tree I encountered this way was so marked, and I began then to wonder at my situation. I could see little, and navigated primarily through the senses of my feet and outstretched arms, like a man blind and deaf—for the gale was so strong about me that I could hear naught but the hissing of the leaves, and the moaning of the trees as they tossed their heads to the storm. And ever present below all these sounds was the rumbling: like thunder, or perhaps a great engine. It neither faded nor grew, but lingered on the edge of sensation.
When the ground began to slope gently upwards, I knew I had reached the proper hills, and I quickened my pace further, now concerned for my wellbeing should this unnatural storm grow any worse. I anticipated rain, but found the air coarse and dry against my face, scrubbing my eyes of tears as it burst upon me in spurts of violent energy.
I was increasingly worried for my situation, and when an especially strong burst brought what I suppose must have been a substantial branch—mayhap a whole tree—down in the woods someplace to my left, I threw caution to the biting wind, and ran. Forgetting my comfort in these Janus woods, I ran and ran, my legs entangled in leaves, my arms propelling me as I ricocheted from tree to dissuading tree. I fancied those ageing sores I felt infecting my own palms, and I feared what I could not see, finding at last a cause for concern, as the welfare of my body was cast to unsound fortune.
I don’t know how I managed to navigate those dour woods, but I burst at last upon open turf, and beheld the cottage of my uncle not twenty yards from where I stood. The little light of the overcast day was like a spotlight in my eyes, and I raised my right hand to shade them—only to find it rough and cold against my face. Confused, I lowered it and flexed my fingers, but they would not move, and my hand remained flush and slightly cupped, ready to hold some object I lacked.
As my eyes gradually recovered in the relative light of that darkest day, I beheld the truth with horror—my right hand was grown heavy and jagged with black and rotting bark, dotted with those self-same irregular marks I’d touched on every tree. I staggered in shock, raising my left hand to find the same terrible phenomenon—and at once the cacophony of noise that had pursued me through the woods rose up like a terrible wave, building to such intensity that I swore it spoke words, though I did not know their language. Wind exploded from the east, and I turned uselessly away as it blasted my back, bringing with it that inexhaustible army of dead leaves that had harassed me all my journey. But rather than passing me, as they had before, they caught on my clothes and wrapped about me, covering my legs and back before I could draw a fresh breath.
I was now in the throes of a horror I had never before dreamed; I had not believed it at first, but as I stood, paralyzed, feeling my joints freeze up in dreadful wooden prehension, the ubiquitous rumbling seized hold of me, and I knew it for what it was. The vast network of trees, the host of roots, branches, trunks—I could hear them growing. My feet were held fast in the ground, and I could hardly turn my head to see the looming shadow of those woods, darkening, thickening overhead. It was not natural, the speed at which those woods stretched towards me, overtaking the small space of open ground I had barely gained before my arrest. I knew that it was coming for me, and should I harbour any hopes of making it through this night of day, I needed to find my strength and break the paralysis that seized my form. All thoughts of visiting my uncle were gone, and as leaves curled across my face, I no longer knew the direction in which his welcoming house lay.
A sudden, unearthly screech broke the air, shredding the rasping leaves that coated my ears. Freed by such a sound, I snapped my feet from clinging tendrils that threatened to bind me in place forever. It was the screeching of the woods giving pursuit, I thought, and ran as fast as I could, burdened by a shell of bark and leaf still clinging to my body.
Somehow I managed to find open ground again, and at last the form of my uncle’s house, which I made my destination, intent on warning him of the imminent danger. But I was swiftly overtaken by shadow, and felt the snaps of branches all around, snatching at my hair and unnaturally changed body. I gasped as the wind propelled me along with this nightmare, the ground torn asunder by restless roots, and the angry rumbling of a thousand thirsting beasts pounding in my chest.
My uncle’s house was enveloped in bark and leaf, the faint light in the windows snuffed out. In a clamour of leaves I found myself running down out of the hills, at the northern end of the territory. A spark of recognition came with an old, browbeaten sign signifying the way to a small town, where my uncle would fain get the few necessities he needed to live. I stumbled across the frozen ground, praying for a morning to end this night—though I knew it must still be afternoon, and true night was yet to come. This knowledge was coal laid on the fire of my fear, and I pressed on, spurred by terror of what may yet pursue me.
Through some miracle of fortune, I reached the small settlement with no further molestation and found my way to a shop of convenience. What a sight I was, when I entered that fair establishment! My face was scratched and raw; my hands—thank God, they were no longer entrapped as I had seen, but rather scraped and chapped to some bloody degree; my clothes were stuck with twigs and clinging leaves, spattered with earth and soiled with some stinking pitch. I was a certain spectacle to the poor man who ran the shop, but he gladly gave his help, and I was able to clean up to some degree, and stay with him and his wife for the night.
I did not think for a moment that I was free from danger. All through the night, the wind raged, and leaves tapped ever against the window near where I lay wrapped in insomnia. The rumbling was there at the back of my senses and touched my spine with fever chills until the creeping and hesitant light of dawn at last liberated me. It was with dumb disbelief that I beheld a normal day to follow that horror, and I stayed but a short time in town before purchasing passage on a coach, taking the south road around the hills back to my home. I could not bear to traverse those hills again. Perched in fear, I rode past their brooding forms in silent horror, until at last I was returned to surroundings familiar to me.
In the nearly ten years that have followed that night, I never glimpsed more motion from those woods. But when the perishing season comes, and the leaves drop from the trees, I shy away from their dry and brittle bodies. And when the shadows are lengthening, and day mimics night to perfection, I hear the rumbling of those miserable woods, and I wonder—what wretch has been caught to stand among their ranks?
Copyright 2021 Marisca Pichette
“The Revellers” first appeared in Issue 9 of Curiosities in December 2021.
“The Revellers” is an homage to the luscious, dread-inducing language of Edgar Allan Poe. Set against the dispassionate New England wilderness Poe loved (and loathed), I aimed to highlight the natural power of those woods that so influenced my childhood. I’ve never faced the forest with fear, but it would be short-sighted to say there’s nothing to fear at all. More than anything, this story is a celebration of the uncanny nature of nature itself.