It happened upon me that, in the second loneliest month of the year, I should journey to the barren flat lands beyond my woods. I set out on an early Friday morning, before the rising sun’s rays meagerly shown through the overcast skies. A cold wind howled from the west, causing me to pull my wool coat taut against my skin, which was purple on the account that I had terrible blood circulation. I was always ridiculed for this — my poor circulation, as if I had some sort of control in the matter — and when the coldness came, so did the jests. “Your hands are purple,” former school mates would say to me. ‘You are surely to die, Old Man, one who is more ancient than time itself”‘ But that all ceased when I left it all behind and fled to the woods, where I spend my time, gathering firewood, burning firewood, warming my hands to the burning firewood, while reflecting the horrors of what once was, and the terrors that were soon to be.
Dead leaves covered the forest floor, cracking and crunching with my every step of my army boots, whose soles had been worn beyond repair. Before departing that morning, I applied a fresh layer of silver duct tape to my footwear, hoping it would keep them from utterly falling to rags of rubber, leather, and lace. Not 17 furlongs since embarking on this fated journey, however, my halfhearted restorations began to fail me, exposing my calloused feet to the twigs and barbs of the unforgiving forest floor. “Oh,” I cried in lamentation, “is there nothing to shield me from cruel nature, a pain that I feel all the greater since my feet have no arch?” My anguish was answered by the silence of true, agonizing solitude.
I wandered out of the thicketed woods in a stupor, weary and sorrowful unto death. What awaited me on the other side of the tree line was a barren landscape, pocked sage grass, charred patches of earth, and dilapidated wooden frames of what once were farm houses. I found a dusty tract of country road — one marked by a wooden road sign, whose text was rendered indiscernible. This would be the pathway to my ruin.
A fog had crept over the desolate country, swallowing what little light emanated from the hollow orb above my head. The grayness weighed my spirit with its pervasiveness; no matter where I walked, no matter where I looked, it, the grayness, followed me, stalked me. Even the recesses of my own memory were no escape from the shroud of inversion that lay before me: it was as if my entire life — my birth, my first steps, even the pictures for my first yuletide ball — were lived in this unholy fog, and thus it would be until my dying moments. The effluvium oppressed me with its tangible weight; I could feel it in my lungs, making each breath a laborious task.
Then, the rain came.
It started as a fine mist, and felt like nothing more than the slightest tingling sensation on my skin. But this light spray soon morphed into heavy pellets, falling from the sky with such speed and ferocity, each drop felt like a sharp stone, exploding upon impact, leaving only welts and unholy cold as its evidence. I pulled my coat even tighter to my body, but the icy chill still bled through my many layers. The road before me also transformed before my eyes, changing from clods of dry dirt to merciless, unforgiving, filthy mud. Every step forward was a step down, as I sank to my heals with each fresh, sludgy footprint, having to call upon every ounce of my being to wrench myself out only to repeat the process again. And again.
My body became numb from the constant repetition and the cold — my strength, utterly depleted. All sense of time was lost to me; it was like I had been birthed in the mud. From earth I came, to the earth I shall return, I said to myself, first internally, then aloud. At some point in the interminable trudge, I looked down and saw my bare feet — pale, pruned, and caked in the black muck. My bodily senselessness was so great, I didn’t notice my didn’t notice the moment when my bedraggled footwear was swallowed whole by this sopping monster. But it was fruitless to retrace my steps in attempt to find my boots among the thick mire, so I had no choice but venture onward, slowly and futilely.
“Errrrrgggghhhhhhpppp,” I grunted as I fell face-first into the scud, quickly followed by a stifled “Hhhhhuuhhhhnnnn.” There I lay, totally immersed in the opaque sludge, unable to move. My strength was depleted, my life force, spent. This was where it would end, I thought, but all I could manage to utter in my complete despair was, “Wwwwrrrrrrgggg.” But, using whatever reserve energy I could summon forth, I looked up from the glop and saw a body of water — immeasurably vast, and dyed a deep, murky green. This unexpected sight revived my broken spirit, and I rushed to its shore, only to be met by a ghastly smell, one worthy of hell’s seventh circle, an odor Dante described as, “the unbearable foul stench / belch from that bottomless abyss.” My eyes filled with tears once the sulfuric stench reached my nostrils, so I immediately covered my mouth and nose with my right arm. Between the exhausted breaths, however, I looked out across the water and noticed the rain did not disturb its emerald surface, though the downpour raged behind me. A strange heat also radiated from this loch, one that filled me with an uneasy warmth. “What sort of devilry is this?” I asked no one in particular. I stepped to the edge to peer down at my reflection; what I saw filled me with great confusion and fear.
Instead of a mirror image of my mud-splattered, tattered self, I saw a likeness resembling my great, great, great uncle Mirsad, whom I vaguely recognized from sepia-toned photos of times long ago. From what I recall of my matriarchal ancestry, Great, Great, Great Uncle Mirsad was a blacksmith who lived in the northern Romanian foothills. According to familial archives, Mirsad was a stout, bull-faced fellow with beady eyes, a large, soot-black mustache, and block-like, calloused hands. He rarely smiled, and mostly kept to himself as he went about his daily duties of blacksmithing, which he performed in near silence. It was also said he displayed absolutely no fondness for the arts of any kind; in fact, it was known he would run from performance halls with his hands covering his ears, as if the very sound of musical vibrations caused him great physical and psychological agony. Sources also indicated that, in the cruel year of ’48, Mirsad left his shop one day while on his weekly errand for turnips, but never again returned. Some speculated he was abducted by a wayward band of circus overlords; others believed he fled the country because of an outstanding debt; and still others thought he might’ve wandered into a cave to live among the bats and lava tubes. It was forever to be a mystery. All that was left of him was the photograph on my bunica’s mantelpiece.
And yet, here he was, staring back at me.
He appeared as he did in the old photograph: mustached, bull-faced, beady-eyed and in his usual attire — a long-sleeved linen shirt, deer-skin knee breeches and his heavy leather apron. The surface remained perfectly still, which made it seem like I stared at him through a green-tinted glass window. “How can this be?” I mused aloud. “Have I truly lost all perception of reality?” Curious, I asked the image, “Are you truly Great, Great, Great Uncle Mirsad, the one who was said to be stolen by circus demagogues, who was believed to have fled because of his unpaid debts, who was thought to be lost in a cavern among nocturnal creatures?”
His reply: “None of the above.”
He spoke, but how? I could hear him as clear as if he were standing at my side. So perhaps he wasn’t a mute, contrary to the long-held family belief — if this were indeed him, and not some demonic shade sent to beguile me. (I also noted his voice was a bit higher pitched and wiry than I imagined for a man of his build.) Even more inquisitive than before, I asked, “Why, then, what really happened, if you truly are Great, Great, Great Uncle Mirsad?”
His reply: “I shall show you.”
Without warning or reason, the visage of Mirsad morphed into that of a skeleton, turning my perplexity to sheer terror. Its eyes — or, where its eyes should’ve been — glowed a bright crimson. I stood still as a dead man, unable to move from the sheer fright of it all. The cadaver emitted a shrill, horrifying cackle, one that pierced the very core of my soul. I covered my ears, completely forgetting about the horrid stench, which also increased in its foulness. My mind was in disarray, and my heart shook my inner cavity. When it occurred to me I should flee from before this accursed scene, I felt skeleton’s bony fingers wrap around my ankle, and it began to pull me under.
The skeleton’s grip was vicelike, and its strength was indefatigable, whereas I was almost completely devoid of life. Still, I fought, clamoring for any type of life line to save me from this fate. I grabbed a bundle of sage grass near the watery shore, but its roots were no match for this fiend’s inexplicable might. “Why, Great, Great, Great Uncle Mirsad? Why?” I wailed, but it was too late. The dastardly foe continued to drag me, his awful laughter sounding in my ears. I was submerged in the water, engulfed in its greenness. I caught one last glimpse of the world above the surface: The sun still couldn’t penetrate the ghastly haze.
I AWOKE as if shot from a cannon, nearly jumping from my captain-height bed. The alarm clock read 3:33 a.m., Oct. 31, 201—. I looked around my pod room to see anything askew: my mini-fridge, posters of Bob Marley and O.A.R., Tibetan prayer flags, and hemp-based clothing were all there, just as I left them. The details of my life began to return to me. I wasn’t some dude with nasty shoes wandering through the mud, I was a sophomore at (omitted) University in (omitted), studying (omitted) with a minor in Chilean economics. I lived in off-campus student housing — pretty much the dorms, without those lame R.A.s who bust you for drinking and stuff — with my roommate Rodriego, who’s one chill dude.
“Oh man, that was a trip,” I said aloud to myself. “What a hella ‘gnar ride.” I couldn’t wait to tell the guys about this; Austin, Gage, Cole, Sam, they’d all think it a killer story. And especially in time for Halloween. Tonight, I had plans to go to costume rave at DingeCentral with my gal, Peggy Sue. It would be uber sick. Until then, though, I really needed to crash, which would be no problem — until I noticed something clenched in my right hand. It was a bundle of wet sage grass.
“This cannot be,” I gasped. “No, no, NO!” I began to sweat, my heart palpitating manically. “That’s impossible.”
In the door, who should I see standing there, but Great, Great, Great Uncle Mildred, his stout, bullish figure clear in the moonlight. He slowly walked to my bed, his beady eyes fixated on me. My whole body quivered with a fright so great, it shook the very foundations of my nearby futon. I was certain this was the end of all things. He held out his huge, blockish hand,s as if to deliver the final blow. Instead, he dropped something onto my mattress. They were my boots, muddied and duct-taped.
“You forgot these,” he said, my eyes wide with wonder.
So was the story I told my instructor and fellow students of HHP 160-01: Fundamentals of Weightlifting in the spring of 2010. Well, there were a few differences between the version I told that May morning and the one above — mainly lengthwise and a few details either changed or expanded upon — but the essential components were there: an unexplained journey through a bleak countryside; coming across a mysterious body of water; seeing a reflection of a dead relative in the water, then the skeleton; being pulled under the water; waking up in my own bed, thinking it was a dream; and physical evidence to suggest it actually happened. No dead relative standing at the door, though.
What prompted the supernatural tale was our instructor, who, before starting each session, would ask the group if they had any “stories.” Mind you, this was an 8 a.m. class on Monday and Wednesday morning, so, as one could imagine, the request was usually met with glazed stares and yawns, myself included. Disappointed, she would send us on our merry way to run our warmup laps. This happened nearly every twice-a-week meeting, and while I initially found this to be a somewhat awkward and forced way to engage a one-credit weightlifting class, I hoped to someday answer the call and share a story with 20 or so strangers. So I plotted and devised a story, one that people would remember for its absolute weirdness. Luckily, I was also taking a Gothic literature class at the time, which provided plenty of inspiration for this macabre tale.
I waited until the class of the semester to tell my “story,” to send the class to summer on a ghoulish, skin-crawling note. The instructor asked, “Does anyone have a story? Now is your final chance.” That’s when I stepped forward, hesitantly (so it appeared), and spun my yarn as straight-faced as I possibly could. In the middle of sharing the details, I felt every pair of eyes on me, assessing my sanity. Throughout the telling, my good friend and former Thomas Brady bandmate, Drew Trafton, played along (it helped that he’s an incredible actor), also wearing a straight face and consoling me. When it came time for the big reveal — the clump of sage grass in my hands after waking — I remember looking around the class to see confused, horrified faces staring back at me. They probably thought I was psychotic, and rightfully so. The instructor replied with, “Ummm, OK. That is really, really weird. You guys can go run your laps now.” That final session carried on as the others did, but at the end, the instructor approached me and said, “Steve, I hope you spend this summer trying to figure out what happened to you. Because that’s really strange.” I told her I would, still trying to stay in character. The story was a success, it seemed.
Anyway, I thought that was worth sharing on today of all days. Also worth sharing, an original song called “Scary.” I recorded it three years ago for a friend’s multimedia project about Montana ghost hunters. It’s pretty much the closest thing I have to a Halloween-appropriate song. Please enjoy, and remember the words of Tim Curry: “Anything can happen on Halloween.”