Before The Haunting


by Brian M. Perry 

Still tripping over raised roots, I could feel my hands continually roughen against the tree bark. The occasional beech tree, with their smooth bark were almost like blessings as their cool skin soothed my palms. Maybe they let her out on purpose, opened the door while I was elsewhere, throwing something at her to make sure she was good and scared and would run far from the house. I think they hate her more than they hate me. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been looking for Nix. I had run out into the woods as soon as I knew that she had run away. Being indoors for most of her life, I thought Nix would have just run back to her comfortable home. It was dark and these woods can be confusing, if you didn’t know them.

I knew these woods like the back of my hand. Even as a child, growing up on this 90-acres of deep forest that surrounded the home at its center, I felt the trees provided a comfortable barrier from bad weather and worse neighbors. The large trees and the darkness they produced always created a sense of awe in my younger mind. At night, the scary and the wonderful combined to make this a special place where I would always want to stay.

For a while I was sure I could hear Nix meowing, in fact it seemed so close that I was sure I would find her right away and get back to the house. Not that I wanted to go back, since one of THEM would probably be there. The cat not only seemed close by, but it sounded like she was off the ground. Are you climbing up the trees, little kitty? I bet that is a fun new adventure for you. I no longer heard Nix, so I kept moving forward.

I thought I felt fur brush against my leg. Nix is that you? The feeling was gone and as I turned I could see nothing in the darkness. Perhaps it is for the best, I thought, as there was just as likely a chance that it was some other animal and that would not be good. A black cat in a black forest, this should be easy. Maybe next time, I mean, far, far in the future, an orange tabby might be less easy to misplace. Normally walking through my woods at night would be a pleasure, but, of course, not now with Nix missing, and with the torturous meetings I was constantly forced to endure, day after day, with my family. How many times had they came over, each time angrier and more desperate? Clarke, my younger brother and our sister Willow always had an excuse, the need to fill out paperwork or some other legal request, but I knew that they were just going to start that discussion all over again.

It always began with the same argument, “We must sell this house”, Clarke would again explain, “You know I have debts. Do you want me to lose my home?” Or more…much, much more perhaps. We hadn’t seen much of each other since we were kids, but through the family tree, I had heard the rumors. Borrowing, gambling, trying to make a buck by thinking he was smarter than the wrong people. After a while, to stay in the game, you had to become like them, make their needs your needs, to survive. “We need to sell the house and the land. Do you know how much this property could be worth? Space for horse barns, perhaps, or at least a large pool. With a little development, this could be a gold mine. With a little destruction, you mean, with a chainsaw.

The ground was soft and muddy. I could feel the dirt sticking to my shoes and I even slipped once or twice on the soft ground. Dropping to one knee I could smell the deep earth, like dark chocolate worked into a mound of coffee beans. The smell reminded me of fishing with my father. I was always in charge of digging in the forest loam for worms before we left for the lake. I would also have the job of digging them out of the soil which filled their new, coffee can tomb. I guess he was trying to teach me something. I thought about how I missed my father now that he was gone. Just weeks after we buried him and all they can do is argue with me about estates and money! From all my experiences with death, I knew this situation would be inevitable. I wonder if there are any families out there where this doesn’t happen.

Willow constantly insisted that the money was needed to allow her four children to go to college. “Do you want them to end up like us?” Like me you mean, living alone, working a simple gardening job and living in my parent’s house. I suppose she wouldn’t mind, of course, if they ended up like her, since her daughter is following in her footsteps. The dark clothes, the dark make-up, brooding music passed down from mother to daughter. When we were young it seemed creative and insightful, but as time went on, dark insights turned to things more cruel. Violence from her lips bled into her surroundings. As a lover of Poe, one would have thought that Nix would be her best friend, but eventually the cat just seemed to be one more obstacle to her mundane greed. Likewise, the forest that could have opened her eyes wasn’t the type of darkness into which she had fallen and craved. I couldn’t even remember a time when Willow had even entered the woods.

This forest that had always protected me, protected our family, had no special meaning to them. To them it wasn’t a sacred place that allowed one to transcend from the regular world. It wasn’t a place where your lack of control was a benefit and a value for which you should be thankful. Being out here, in the dark, gave me a sense of pleasure in being “lost”. As I kept searching for Nix, I could feel that I was getting further and further from the house. I could feel the trees standing tightly around me, sometimes I even had to turn sideways to pass between two trunks. I was sure I had been everywhere in this woods, but maybe not. Even for me, it was difficult to tell where you had or hadn’t been. I didn’t remember such a dense portion of the forest before, but, of course, it was always growing. As the trees grew bigger and wider, even if you had been to a place before, the empty space that you remembered would continue to get smaller and smaller. This would make it even more difficult to find Nix, since she could just jump through passages that would slow a person down.

I suppose they had always hated Nix. Even before I received that large amount of cash from the estate, in addition to my one-third claim on the property, they had either ignored her or chased her away. Once Clarke stood in the hallway and screamed, “How many damn beds does that stupid cat need?”

“Well”, I tried to explain, “this one has a heater and….”

“You have no idea,” He continued at the top of his lungs,” No idea at all, what you (or we) could be doing with that money!”

“It’s my money and I used it for what I thought was important… Nix.”

“That cat needs to go….we all need to go. Leave here with some money.” Clarke said as he started to make his plans as if things had already been decided. “First we need to hire an attorney and do it right the first time.”

“And where are you going to get money for that?” I said, as if I didn’t know what he was thinking.

“Well, that’s what I mean,” Clarke explained, “That’s how the estate cash should be used. You need to use money to make money.” Ten thousand on green to win. “You need to work with us. Think of your responsibilities to the family.” I know my responsibilities. That’s why I know I need to find Nix. That’s why I know I need to stay here and protect this place.

I don’t exactly remember how Nix got out, I certainly wouldn’t let her out myself. I remember coming back into the kitchen from doing…something…the side door was open and banging against the side of the house. They must have let her out, Clarke or Willow or whomever was in the house. I am going to stay here no matter what you do! With that thought pounding in my head, I took off out the back door to search for Nix, leaving the light of the kitchen farther and farther behind me.

Those arguments seem so long ago, but time was always different in the forest. It was so very quiet, quieter than I could ever remember, even at night. I could feel the soil give way beneath my feet and the occasional roll of my shoe on a downed branch, but never a crunch or a break. It had been some time since I sensed any trace of Nix. I thought, perhaps, I should just go back to the house. I could imagine Nix sitting inside the doorway to the kitchen, staring at me with that “Is it treat time?” expression. Moving forward I noticed that the trees in this area were even closer together. I could hardly turn in any direction without touching the solid trunk of a tree. If I wasn’t in such a hurry to find Nix, this would not be a problem. I could imagine the forest coming close to me, reaffirming that there was truly something substantial, yet unexplained, here that gave meaning to my simple life.

Just as you have always protected me and provided a sense of oneness that I doubt I could ever find anywhere else in the world, I will take care of you. I…we will be here for you.

Literarily climbing through the dense forest, I repeatedly turned slightly to my right, not only to make my way back toward the house, but also perhaps to find a more open area to walk. The trees made no more space for me and, with each step, I breathed more and more deeply. The time I had spent in the woods seemed like hours, even days, since I remember the light from the kitchen dimming behind me. Suddenly I could hear…something…are those voices? Not really hearing them, almost as if they were in my head. Clarke’s low, rumbling voice pulsed in short, loud bursts. Every third word hitting a note,

“…HOUSE…MUST…Money…Cat…money.”

Willow’s voice echoed in the background, following his words in the pattern of two operatic singers playing off each other,

“…LAND….SELL….Need…Black…alone.”

As the space between the trees decreased, the voices and the air itself was forced out and away from me. Drifting off into the distance, I could still barely hear them humming their song of greed and sorrow. Struggling forward through the trees and against the soft ground, I pushed ahead and fell forward, my head hitting against a tree. Falling backward I was caught by another tree and I held myself up against it. It felt almost impossible to move, not necessarily because of any injury, but rather because of the sensation of space shrinking around me. I could not only feel the bark, but branches and leaves as well, surrounding me in a nest of wood. The leaves brushed back and forth against my face, lulling me to rest, as my thoughts faded away into the darkness.

I woke up, upright but immobile, feeling more awake than I had before. I could see, or rather not see, that it was still late at night. Moving both my arms and legs against wood so impenetrable and so dark, I slowly began to consider where I stood. Thoughts of being buried alive, screaming and clawing your last breaths away, flashed into my mind, but quickly passed. In fact, all fear was gone. The wood, warm and wet against my skin, suspended my body, but not my mind, which experienced new thoughts that I could not explain, as if there was any need. As someone had once mentioned, I thought for some time about my responsibilities.

Some later time, I could feel Nix’s warm hug against my leg. I had finally found her! Softly purring, Nix lay curled up at my feet, content and comfortable in her warm, dark bed in the forest.

We will all be safe, Nix and I will make sure of that.