01 Feb The Face of Fear
Twice I saw the face in the window, pressed up against the surface, its icy breath fogging the cold glass. At first it appeared strange to me, the skin beneath its eyes drooping in ripples of flesh, exposing the red sensitive strata underneath.
It was the winter of ‘83, and I had booked the cabin for three nights – only three. A break was needed, somewhere to relax, somewhere to recover. I’d had a heart attack two months earlier; a painful, excruciating experience which I would not wish on my worst enemy. Lying there sprawled across my kitchen floor, the sharp agony had syphoned through my veins – chest – arm – jaw. I lost consciousness only to find myself in a hospital bed days later. It was my daughter, Jen, who discovered me. Thank God for her.
The cabin was to be a retreat, a place far removed from the stresses of my life; the fallout from a failed marriage, the pressures of a flagging career, and the ordeal of staring death in the face. Comfort had become a stranger. Fear, however, was now both my enemy and constant companion. Each beat of my heart was felt, the slightest change of rhythm or palpitation a nursery for terror. The knowledge that, at any time, the agony of death could be brought upon me by the very thing which gave life, seemed perverted, an abomination of purpose. I now wandered through life like glass, afraid that the slightest exertion might shatter me.
The doctors had done their part through surgery and medication, now it was my turn to help my body heal as best it could. Only time would tell how successful such efforts had been. I was advised to relax, to undertake some limited physical therapy, and to avoid any anxiety or sudden shocks. But how does one avoid a shock or a nasty surprise? By it’s very definition a shock is an unknown, unforeseen, unexpected event which lurks in the darkness of obscurity, out there, mingled with the fog of yet to come – around a corner, in the next room, a wrong turn taken, or an unwelcome phone-call bearing bad news. I found the entire concept of avoiding the unanticipated to be a laughable one. And still, there I was, preparing for the quiet solitude of the countryside, following the advice of the experts, and those men and women in sterile white coats.
I had almost ignored their recommendations, remaining slumped at home, festering, counting the hours and beats of my heart as finite measures of my life. When still, the mind can unleash a terrible onslaught of memories. I thought of Suzie, of the years spent together and now wasted. We had been happy once, but I had played my part in where we ended. She came to visit me in the hospital, perhaps she too wished for reconciliation, but feeling the gulf between us, as she sat at my bedside, was worse than any physical heartache. We smiled, and spoke the empty words of day-to-day which litter each and every hospital ward. As she left, she touched my hand for the briefest of moments, and yet I could tell that she no longer sheltered the spark she once had for me. She tried to be kind, but some things done and said can never be taken back, a fire of resentment which can never be extinguished. They say time heals all wounds, but some cuts are deeper than others.
In those bleak days of loneliness, I had only the thought of my daughter to keep me from slipping into a dark depression, and yet she stayed with her mother most of the time. Perhaps I had been cold towards her too, I knew my failings as a husband, but I had never conceived that I had been anything but a loving father; and so I lived for those brief two days a week when I could see her. The in between times were filled with fear of death and thoughts of worthlessness. Friends, family, doctors – they all urged me to go on a holiday, but I was afraid, scared of my heart giving up, frightened by the possibilities brought forth by an anxious mind preoccupied with the fragile body which housed it.
If it hadn’t been for Jai, I would never have gone. He visited me several times a week and encouraged me to be as upbeat as possible with his usual quips and jokes. He kept me going in fact, and finally persuaded me that a few days away in the countryside would do me good. Still, I was terrified of being left alone, isolated, away from things and people. What if I had another attack? Perhaps the next one would be fatal, and even if I could be saved, I would be too far for help to reach me in time. I needed somewhere that I could relax away from the world, and yet not so far from the wonders of modern medicine.
That was why we chose Blackwood cabin.
Jai had visited there as a child. It sat on the outskirts of a large forest, hemmed in on a patch of open ground by a beautiful flowing river on the other side. Despite its seeming detachment from the world, it was in fact only six miles from the nearest hospital, which stood near a small town on the boundary of that thick, darkened web of trees. This, and the insistence of Jai that he stay as well, left me contented enough in the knowledge that help would always be at hand.
I could feel myself begin to relax as we left the city, and during the drive we both talked and laughed, reminiscing about our days together at university. For the first time in months I felt positive about the world, watching the motorway recede into the distance, relinquishing its concrete grip to the wild, untamed, and imposing grandeur of the great outdoors. Only once did I bring up the mention of Suzie and our separation, but Jai quickly turned the conversation around to something more positive and fun, as he often did. I held out hope that the divorce would never be finalised, that she would come back to me, but hope too can be an exhausting predicament, so I attempted to filter Suzie from my mind as best I could.
The single-track road weaved its way through Blackwood Forest. We wriggled over six miles of twists and turns and serpentine slitherings before we finally reached the clearing. A large waterlogged patch of wild grass carpeted the area, so much so that we had to park the car a few of hundred feet from our destination for fear of getting stuck. In the centre of the soaked, near-marshland ground stood the rickety and ageing shelter which we intended to call home for the following three days.
The cabin was itself small, with one main room complete with cosy log burner and stove, and two cramped bedrooms at the back. It had been there for an age, that much was certain, and the darkened timber beams which carried the heavy burden of time above, sagged and dipped as they lurched across the ceiling. The smell of moss and bark swathed the air, and the sound of the flowing river on the other side of the cabin, bubbled and brewed – peaceful, serene, yet mysterious.
The first day was uneventful: exactly what I needed, relaxing with a book in front of three large logs smoldering in the fire, and spending a little while sitting on the steps to the cabin, watching the river swell and swarm with the winter currents. It was then that I understood the naming of the place. Peering out across the bobbled grass to the tree line, the forest seemed picturesque yet impenetrable from distance, and the clearing where the cabin sat provided only a temporary pause to its encroachment, before it once again continued to blanket the land on the other side of the river. The woodland was dark and black, yes, but full of life, of vibrancy, of things – deer, foxes, beetles, rabbits – but I would never have guessed at the horrors which lurked between its tightly woven evergreen branches.
Many tourist traps survive on tales of ghosts and ghouls hidden somewhere nearby; stories exaggerated by pub landlords or hotel managers, speaking of rooms where something ominous walks at the midnight hour. Visitors flock to such places hoping to spend the night in a haunted room; to glimpse something in the darkness which whispers the thought that life is more bizarre – more interesting – than we could possibly imagine. Even that lonely and forgotten cabin seemed to have something of a myth attached to it.
In a bookshelf, tucked away in the corner of one of the bedrooms, Jai found a warped old hard back. The papers were yellowed, and while it contained the publication date of 1967, I was certain that it had only ever seen one pressing, left in the cabin to titillate those staying there. The book was called ‘The Beast of Blackwood Forest’. Rifling through it, I found that the author had dedicated much of her life to the documentation of a local legend. I had myself heard the stories when I was younger, as I had once dated a girl who lived in a nearby town. All the kids talked about The Beast of Blackwood, a creature which everyone’s Uncle had seen while out hunting in the forest – dark, hulking, monstrous. Of course, I always laughed at such things, and no concrete evidence for it had ever been found, but each winter there were rumours, whispers about something shambling through the woods at night.
As the day gave way to twilight, I read through some of those pages while Jai stocked the stove and prepared supper. Although I discarded the legend as nonsense, I found the book quite compelling, and the eyewitness testimonies, contained therein, affected me enough to cause me to see something which wasn’t there: shadows moving outside under the cloak of dusk. I began to feel my heart once more, and decided that it was best to leave the terrors of the horror genre – fact and fiction – behind. My mind was still fraught with the strain of Suzie leaving me and the fear of the slightest palpitation signalling another heart attack, so, accounts of a terrifying creature preying on those in my immediate vicinity, no matter how preposterous, were not suitable for a fragile disposition. The clean country air, on the other hand, was doing me the world of good.
After dinner, Jai surprised me with a bottle of my favourite whisky – 16 year Lagavulin. I knew that the doctors would frown upon it, but the idea of swishing that warming liquid gold around my mouth and taking a deep gulp, reminded me of something essential. It reminded me of being normal again, of being strong, of sitting in my family home with my wife and daughter, enjoying the finer side of life. A few drams would not be unwelcome.
We talked and laughed about the past while playing cards and enjoying, again, reliving old adventures we had travelling together during our university summers with the old gang. I would have happily stayed there wrapped in the comfort of those memories for an eternity, and in many ways I wish I could have sunk further into that moment of relief from my recent worries, but that was not to be.
Around 11 o’clock the log burner was running low, and we had all but run out of wood. Jai drunkenly picked up a torch and decided that he would go and quickly gather some more, so that we could keep the good times flowing. I didn’t protest, I was happy, I was content to allow that night to continue. He was a good friend, and insisted that I not raise a finger out there in the cold darkness – he always was braver than me, and I’d be lying if I said that the outlandish thought of something lurking in the woods hadn’t left its mark.
I watched from the window for a moment as the beam from his torch bounced along the uneven, now frozen, grass. The light dropped to the ground for a second, and I heard the drunken merry laughter of my friend echoing out as he picked himself back up before continuing towards the tree line. Smiling, I returned to my book of choice, flicking through a few pages of an Ellery Queen detective novel; less dangerous than the previous read. After about 15 minutes I realised how truly silent the cabin was. No noise, no wind, no sounds of life or the living, and for the first time I sensed something sinister resting in the stillness.
Suddenly, Jai burst into the cabin and collapsed on the floor, panting. He turned to the door and kicked it shut with his heels frantically, his eyes wide, panicked, disbelieving. Scrambling back to his feet he turned a small table on its end and wedged it against the skin of the ageing wood under the handle.
‘Help me, for Christ’s sake’, he whispered anxiously.
I stood up quickly and rushed to me friend’s aid, helping him pack furniture – anything with weight – against the door. It was the first time since the heart attack that I had physically exerted myself, and it would not be the last. I felt the blood pump through my chest, and momentarily quivered at the sensation. I tried to find out what had happened, but Jai was exhausted and distraught; a shiny streak of sweat ran down his cheek as he wheezed and gasped for air. He flicked the light switch, smothering us in a darkness which was only broken by a crescent moon hanging in the sky outside, its slivered light vaguely illuminating the inside of the cabin.
Prowling the window which gazed out towards the forest, his stare never broke for a moment from the frozen world outside. We stood there, my repeated questions going unanswered, and slowly my fragility returned. I rubbed my chest for a moment as my friend’s anxiety seemed to spread to me. My heart raced, and my mind swung like a pendulum between the fear of an agonising heart attack, and the terror etched on Jai’s face. Just what had scared him so badly? I breathed deeply to calm myself, but Jai took no notice, he was too fixated on the darkness outside. It was only when I poured him a large whisky, that he finally broke his silence.
I’ve never been frightened of words, but my friend’s certainly shook me: ‘There’s something out there.’
I did not reply immediately, but when I did, I could only think to ask: ‘Something?’
What could he have meant by such an indefinite term? There were no bears in that part of the country, no large predators at all, but it did indeed seem that Jai had seen ‘something big’ in the woods. He had been gathering wood for the stove around the tree line of the forest, and as he described standing there listening to a short flurry of rain tap the canopy above him, I could see the fear grip his insides, as it did mine. My heart began to pound harder as Jai stuttered over the words: ‘I saw it moving between the trees, straight for me. I didn’t look back, but I’m telling you, it wasn’t human.’
I knew my friend was convinced by what he said, but while I dismissed the notion of an unknown creature stalking the woods outside – and perhaps in the attempt, hid the descriptions from the yellowed pages of that book which had etched into my mind – I very much did entertain the idea that there was someone out there. Someone dangerous, mad, or perhaps both. My pulse continued to race, and I could feel my heart beating wildly at the thought of a shadowy figure prowling around outside, watching us, waiting.
After finally composing himself, Jai asked if I was okay, his fear now turning to concern for his friend, but I myself was transfixed on one course of action: escape. I rushed over to the cabin’s phone, but on picking up the receiver I was greeted by an icy silence. The line was dead, and what that still, lifeless receiver said about the unseen threat I was sure we now faced, was enough to thrust dread into my very soul.
I stood there for a moment, desperately trying to formulate a course of action. That serene, peaceful place in the daytime now felt imposing and absent of mercy. I just wanted to go home. Jai motioned for me, and then pointed with shaking hand at the darkness outside. It was then that he let out a suffocated whisper: ‘It’s there.’
Looking out into the moonlit night I saw nothing at first, but as my eyes adjusted to the darkened landscape outside, I finally saw it. Deep down I had hoped that Jai had simply drunk too much and spooked himself while out there, but now any dream of a simple and harmless explanation was extinguished. Someone was standing amongst the trees. Just standing and looking, bathed in darkness. It was difficult to make out any detail, all I could see was an outline – the outline of a stooped and hunched figure, its arm wrapped around a tree as if steadying itself. I could not be sure, but it felt as though its stare was firmly transfixed on our cabin; our rickety shelter for the night which had no doubt seen many winters there before, and perhaps even encountered whoever or whatever was looking at us from across the sodden stretch of icy marsh, which surrounded us.
‘Who… Who is that?’, I stammered.
‘Keep your voice down’ Jai snapped in return.
And so we whispered, and spoke of the hunched figure standing only a few hundred feet from us.
‘It’s not a man’, Jai kept saying, but I continued in my attempts to dissuade him from that conclusion.
‘I saw it through the trees. It moved… It moved in a weird way. Limping, like it was off balance or deformed or something, but it moved fast.
I’ve no idea how I made it back. Maybe it won’t leave the trees.’
His eyes widened, and it was clear that a revelation had sprung forth from his mind. He turned suddenly, walking across the room to a table where I had left those yellowed pages which spoke of a strange creature living in the woods. Jai thumbed through it, shielding the light from his torch as best he could with his hand. As I watched him scan through the contents and flick to what he seemed so animated about, I almost laughed at the insinuation. ‘It’s a man, Jai. Just someone messing with us’, but he was convinced otherwise.
‘Look at this’, he said, following the text with his finger as he read. ‘Accounts have varied over the centuries, but a central element to the myth states that the Beast of Blackwood only wanders from the forest late at night. It has been suggested that the creature uses the thick canopy as protection during daylight hours. Locals claim that it is entirely nocturnal.’
‘There’s no such thing as the beast.’ I could feel my pulse thicken as my blood pressure increased at the idea, so much so that I had to sit for a moment to allow my heart to recover its normal beat.
‘Are you okay?’
‘I’ll be fine, let’s just wait until it gets light and we can leave.’
‘Are you crazy? You didn’t see that thing up close. It’s huge, and quick, if it wants to get in here, it will.’
‘So, there’s a weirdo in the woods. He can’t wait us out all night, anyway, he’s probably just a hunter or someone camping in the forest, he’ll be harmless.’ I listened to the words exit my mouth – even I didn’t believe them. There was something about the place, a silence. Deathly, icey; a sickly sense of dread hanging in the air, hidden between the bark and the moss.
Jai turned to look outside to the grassland which etched towards our car, sleeping in the night chill between us and the brooding forest. ‘We need to leave, or you can stay here and I’ll get the police. Either way, I’m going.’ He turned to look at me sternly. ‘Which would you prefer?’
I might not have been convinced that it had been an unknown creature that had stalked him through the woods, but by God I didn’t want to stay in that cabin alone. I threw my stuff in a bag, as Jai did the same, each of us grabbing a knife from the kitchen for protection; and there we stood, looking at the door, a pile of furniture wedged behind it. We dismantled our makeshift barricade as quietly as we could and then, brandishing our kitchen knives nervously, slowly opened the door. It creaked softly, sucking in the night air which felt cold and bitter, and revealed a slow patter of light rain threatening something greater from the heavens.
Jai poked his head out first, and then after a brief silence waved me on. We descended the dozen or so steps which led down onto the grass, and as we peered around the corner we could see our ticket home: the car was parked a few hundred feet from where we stood, nestled in the last piece of dirt track, which would give way to road, and then the safe embrace of home – if we made it. It would take a minute or so to reach, but with knowledge of the figure in the forest lurking around somewhere nearby, it seemed like an eternity away. I slung the strap of my bag over my shoulder, and Jai, mindful of my condition, headed towards the car first.
‘Keep looking around’, he urged me with a whisper.
The waterlogged grass squelched under foot, and the rain began to grow more angered as we stepped tentatively towards the safety of the car. We tried to be as quiet as possible, but even in the moonlight we had to use our torches to see what was ahead of us, advertising our position to anyone or anything in the vicinity. I kept looking out towards the forest; the tree line; the thickening river behind me – but I could see nothing, nor could I hear anything but the rain drops which now battered against the car and splattered on my hood. Then, Jai suddenly stopped.
‘What is it?’, I whispered over the rain, my heart now beating wildly, throat dried by worry.
The rain subsided slightly, replaced by the silence of a landscape petrified, frozen by a winter chill. Jai spoke without turning his head towards me, his breath visible in the beam of my torch: ‘I thought I saw something moving in the tree line.’
A crack of wood, the sound of the unseen walking over the forest floor. ‘C’mon!’, Jai whispered with urgency, and we broke into a brisk jog. Adrenaline coursed through my veins as my pulse thumped desperately. As we continued on, all I could think of was my heart and the deep, stuttered, and freezing breaths I took in trying to calm myself.
As we drew closer to the car, the faintest wisp of moonlight hung in the air as the crescent above us swung behind a pack of clouds, and the world took on a strange icy blue. Stumbling over the grass, we finally reached the grey outline of our ride home.
‘Open the door, let’s get out of here’, I pleaded as Jai fumbled for his keys, dropping them to the ground.
‘Bastard’, he growled.
Instinctively, I pointed my torch downward, illuminating the long wild grass, now whitened by a thick coating of frost beneath our feet. I waited for an instant and as I peered down at the ground I recognised that something was very wrong: Jai was not moving. He hadn’t even looked down to see where he had dropped the keys. He was staring at something, and the look of sheer panic in his eyes told me that we were not alone.
I raised my hand, and with it a beam of light glinted off of the car. Two large eyes stared back from the other side of the vehicle – a hunched, hulking thing, glaring up at us, crouched behind the car bonnet. It shivered, and then again, and as it rose up I saw it for a moment. Wet drenched hair, mouth gaping, its face a pallid and quivering grey. It groaned loud, with a strange, unearthly, and high pitched undertone, which only added to the creature’s horrid appearance.
‘Run!’, Jai yelled.
I did not need to be told twice. I dropped my bag and ran as fast as I could. I panted, sweat, stumbled, thrust myself forward with every ounce of energy I had left in me, and as I did so, the first pains came. The freezing cold stung my eyes, I fell twice, helped to my feet by my friend. My heart staggered, it heaved and battered in my chest. I could feel the slight twinge of pain run up my neck, nestle in my jaw. My chest tightened. I cried in terror. This was a heart attack.
I yelled out: ‘Help…’, but all I could hear was Jai running behind me, screaming for me to move faster.
‘Keep going, and don’t look back.’
As the cabin came into touching distance, I heard the heartbreaking absence of my friend’s footsteps. I knew Jai, all those years as close as we were, he was always the brave one, something I had at times been jealous of, the one stubborn enough to stand up to anything. I understood implicitly that he was buying me time, a selfless gesture which helped me make it to the steps, scrambling up them only to turn and see him staring the creature down, face to face, the beast shrouded in shards of night. As its hulking mass lunged towards him, a searing pain ran up my neck from my chest. I collapsed to the ground; but he needed me, and whatever life was left in my failing body I was compelled to use to help him. Staggering to my feet, the night air stinging my lungs, I lurched forward clutching my chest, ready to strike the beast with everything I had left. Before I could assist, Jai appeared from the darkness, grabbed my arm and threw me into the cabin.
He frantically barricaded the door once more. We slumped to the floor, breathless, deciding to keep the lights out, and listened: shuffling in the darkness, but nothing more. The pain in my chest had subsided slightly, it was clear that the heart attack had begun, but when it would end me seemed uncertain.
‘What.. What was that thing?’ I asked between gasps.
‘I don’t know, but it wasn’t human’ said Jai, solemnly, before showing me the knife he had used during the fight, now covered in a putrid black liquid. ‘I don’t think even this hurt it much.’
‘This is crazy. What do we do now?’
‘I don’t know, I just don’t know’.
And so, we waited, and waited, but the pain in my chest grew steadily, my breath more erratic. I took my pills, but I knew that the old enemy had returned and that I needed more than something to calm my nerves. If I didn’t receive medical attention, there was every chance I would die.
Jai stared at me as I sat on the old couch against the window, worried that each breath would be my last.
‘We need to get you to a hospital’, he said gently.
‘Yeah, just chopper me in.’ We both laughed for a moment.
Jai stood up and looked outside. He seemed reluctant at first, and no wonder considering what lurked outside, but his concern for me appeared to slowly drown out his fear. ‘I can’t see anything out there anymore, the moon is behind those clouds, and we might not get another chance. I think I can make it to the car quicker on my own.’
‘But that thing out there…’, I said, deep down ashamed that my fear of death galvanised a hope that my friend would indeed find the courage to try again.
He leaned over me and smiled kindly, patting me on the shoulder: ‘I can do this.’
‘It’s pitch black out there, you’d need to use a torch, and then it would see you’, I said, wincing once more at the growing pain in my chest.
‘I’ll flash it on and off, that way it won’t know where I am. Maybe it’ll get confused, I don’t know.’ He clenched the torch tightly, while looking at the kitchen knife in his other hand. ‘Hopefully that’ll give me enough time to see what’s in front of me and head for the car. The keys should still be where I dropped them.’
‘Jai, please wait until morning’, I asked , but as my friend looked at me clutching my chest, I knew he had already made up his mind, and part of me was glad for the hope his bravery provided.
‘Barricade the door as soon as I’m out.’
‘Okay’, I said, trying to hold back tears both of pain and worry for my friend’s life.
He gave me a hug, and then he was gone. I closed the door and bolstered it once more with anything I could find, before pulling myself back up onto the couch and looking outside. At first I could see nothing but the black stillness of the forest. Then, a blast of light, then another, and another as Jai’s torch sporadically burst into life. Each flash illuminated the landscape around him like a ghostly photograph documenting his progress towards the car. I could see what he was doing, and I smiled to myself for a moment, once more impressed by his ingenuity. He wasn’t moving in a straight line but zig-zagging so that his path could not be anticipated. Another flash. And another. Each time, no sign of the creature and one more precious movement closer to the car. Grass. Tree. An anonymous wilderness of darkness. Another flash, another patch of grass. He was so close. Then, the intermittent light became erratic, moving one way, then another. Backwards. Left. Right. Was he lost? Was he unsure which direction the car was in? A more horrific thought then entered my mind: was he being chased? A flash of light, nothing. Then another, nothing again. Finally, the light beamed – he’d made it to the car. The light was quickly extinguished, followed by the sound of a door opening. One last flash of the torch. The isolated outline of a hunched figure standing behind my friend. A blood curdling scream, then nothing.
Jai was gone, the beast had got him, and I was alone.
Grief now mingled with fear, feeding the pains in my chest and arm. My friend was most probably dead, and I was certain that I would soon follow him. I fell to my knees, sure that this was it – the end. Agony ran up my chest once more. There I knelt in the darkness, alone, resigned to my death. But as my heart slowed, my thoughts became clear. They turned to my daughter. Whether a good dad or not, I would be damned if I was going to leave her fatherless. And what of Suzie? I still loved her, and perhaps in those sweet memories of better times between us, I could fix things, bring us back together as a family. She could learn to love me again. I would set things right.
My heart still beat, and as long as it did there was time left yet, for hope, for escape, for life. But time to do what? The phone was dead, and all I could wait for was daylight. Yet that was at least three hours away and I severely doubted that I would last that long, never-mind that I was unsure that the old cabin door could survive an attack from whatever that hulking creature was which lurked outside.
I peered out through the window, the rain lashing down once more, obscuring an already ill-defined exterior world. And still, I was certain I could see something limping around in the darkness. As glints of moonlight pierced through the charcoal clouds above, I was sure that the attacker was out there somewhere. Pacing, circling, waiting. But what was it? Was it a man? Or a thing yet to be discovered by science? I did not know where to turn, but all I could think of was getting home to my family. The hopeful warm embrace of Suzie and my daughter was enough to fuel my search for a way out.
My only refuge was the book; that volume which I had mocked so readily before. I had to now consider the possibility that my dear friend and I had both come into contact with the Beast of Blackwood. At the start of the day that idea would have seemed ridiculous, but fear opens the mind quickly to any avenue of escape. I sat at the table and used the light from my torch to illuminate the pages, still shielding it from the outside. What I read intrigued me. The creature had been described since the 1700s, and there was even the suggestion that it had been seen before that, as there were references to the ‘Grey Man’ of Blackwood forest in fragmented accounts from centuries earlier. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of 20th century sightings, in fact the last person to come forward officially had been in 1952, claiming to have encountered a stooped, grey-faced figure with a contorted arched back, disappearing between the trees on the other side of the forest.
The original myths did not say much about its origins, but it certainly spoke of its motivations. The creature was drawn or attracted by greed. Children would be told to share and be kind, otherwise the Beast of Blackwood would appear from the forest and snatch them away at night. I could not look in the mirror and say that I was never guilty of greed, of selfishness, or of a number of other petty human frailties, but to be punished in this way seemed cruel, a dying prisoner trapped in the cabin of Blackwood forest. Returning to the book, the only supposed protection against the creature was light, or being a person without selfish frailty. In centuries gone by, villagers in the local area would line the paths through the forest with burning torches when the beast had been sighted, to ward it away from unwary travellers.
Thud. Thud. Thud. Each thump sent waves of terror through my body. It was not my heart, but someone at the door. Thud. Thud. Thud. I hoped beyond hope that my friend had once again managed to evade the creature’s grasp. Brandishing a kitchen knife, I hobbled to the door and plucked up the courage to shout: ‘Jai, is that you?’. I prayed that it was, but the answer I was given was not the voice of one of my oldest friends, nor was it even that of a man, but the shrill cry of something utterly inhuman. A sound which spoke of time, and age, and of moss and dank forest. A childlike shriek of unspeakable purpose.
The door shook violently as I piled more chairs, pots – anything I could find – behind the wooden barrier. The pounding was loud and angered, and the cries continued. I clutched my ears in despair, then I remembered: the light. The torches of old warding the beast away. I flicked the switch and the porch-light came on outside. Another cry echoed out across the empty landscape, and at that, the thudding stopped.
I quickly turned all the lights on in the house, now realising the creature’s weakness. I wasn’t sure if I would last, but if I could just make it till dawn, maybe the sun would save me. Then, I heard it. The sound of something moving. Shuffling, climbing. I stood paralysed at the realisation – it came from my bedroom. The beast had gotten in, attracted no doubt by any greed and selfishness I had harboured throughout my life. Slowly, the door from the bedroom creaked open. My heart pounded, and again my thoughts turned to my family, to my daughter’s laugh, and the comforting caress of my wife. They fuelled me, drove me to a strength I did not know I had. I launched in terror across the room, battering against the door. Even with all of my momentum, the creature’s hand managed to slip through the gap, its bobbled grey skin and black matted hair soaked by the rain. I swung with the knife only to miss its arm. The beast seemed to hesitate for a moment, and as it did I shoved my hand through the gap in the door and flicked on the light in the room – a howl of pain, and then nothing. I gasped for air and rested against the door for a time, before I finally plucked up the courage to look inside. A window lay wide open, but the room was empty.
I closed the window and staggered back into the main room. My heart raced, and while I fought to stay on my feet, a sweeping pain arched up through my back and needled into my chest knocking the wind out of me. I felt like I was going to pass out and stumbled forward, landing on the couch. I breathed slow and deep, not yet, please God not yet. The cabin remained eerily quiet, and in that silence sat the memories of better times, of my daughter playing as a child, of travelling with Jai in our twenties, of Suzie’s smile. I don’t know how long I lay there, but I knew that soon my body would give up. I looked out through the large bay window behind the couch, and hoped to see the first welcome rays of sunlight, but I saw nothing but darkness. If I was to survive, I had to make it to that car, outrun the beast, and drive through the forest to a hospital, or at least a main road. If ever I was to see my family again, to put everything right, the car was my only hope. It was all or nothing.
Then suddenly the creature’s stilted head rose up from beneath the window sill. The inhuman face pressed against the cold glass. Its grey skin sagged and weeped away from its eyes, the moist red flesh underneath visible in the cabin’s light. The shock had finished me. My heart stopped for a brief moment, and then thudded, struggling to maintain my life. My body went limp, my head resting only inches from the window. Looking up helplessly, I watched as the beast stared into my eyes through the pane of glass.
My heart sprang into another deluge of beats, battering away at the inside of my chest. A sharp pain ran up my neck, the creature’s green-tinged stare stabbed through me and as its breath fogged the glass, I grabbed the only thing at hand – the old yellowed book – and thrust it at that putrid face. Book followed by fist shattered the glass, countless pieces and shards showered down upon both beast and myself. A scream, a hideous shriek of derision cut through the icy blackened night as I struck those horrid, accursed features, and again, and again. Its thorned hands waved and flailed, grabbing hold of me, and for a second I thought it was going to tear me from the inside of the cabin. Then, the winter frost came to my defence. The beast slipped from its footing on a pipe which clung to the outside of the rickety old shack, and as I clawed at its face with utter disgust, the creature fell the six or seven feet to the ground below.
The sound of something hurt lying beneath the shattered window broke my daze as I stared at the contents of my hands. Where there once had been eyes, the face now stared eyeless at me. Where there once had been a mouth, the creature gaped wide, lifeless, jaw-less, and utterly without agency. For in my fading grip lay the torn and crumpled remains of a mask.
On the ground below a man writhed in pain, wrapped in the vestiges of a hulking, false, monstrous suit, the fall having knocked the wind from him. Something then moved in the darkness nearby. A patter of feet, light and agile. Suzie. My soon to be ex-wife. The one I had adored and agonised over. She screamed, attending to her lover on the ground – my closest and dearest friend, Jai, The Beast of Blackwood Forest.
Suzie looked up at me with hatred and contempt in her eyes. But I couldn’t muster anger, nor jealousy, all I could think of was that I must have been a monster to have deserved such malice from those I loved; the two people I trusted most in the world. Jai slowly rose to his feet, and yet he could not acknowledge me. He could not look up to the friend he had betrayed.
Then it came. Finally, my heart began to give in. Not at fright, or fear, but at sadness, loss; the anguish of a broken heart. I stood up clutching my chest, and as I staggered backwards, I saw the smiling face of Suzie, and then the words of my once trusted friend: ‘Thank God.’ They embraced beneath the window as I fell to the cold and solid wooden cabin floor. And yet I did not lose consciousness. The pain was agonising, but nothing compared to the sharp incisions made by each word spoken from below the window.
‘What are we going to do about the window?’, Suzie asked.
‘I’ll just say that he smashed it during the heart attack.’
‘But maybe they’ll guess?’
‘No, baby, they won’t guess anything. He’ll be dead, and we can start a new life together when the insurance pays out. Now, you need to go back to the woods and go home. I’ll clean up here and then phone an ambulance once I’m sure he’s gone.’
I almost chuckled to myself as I writhed around helpless on the floor. I had hoped that Suzie had refused a divorce because of love, because deep down she still wanted me, but instead it was only to hang on to how much money my death would make her. For a while I heard Jai slip and swear as he attempted to climb up to the broken window once more, but, each time he failed to pull himself inside. He then changed tactic and tried to push at the door, but again, I had barricaded it effectively and obviously he didn’t want to force it and leave further evidence of foul play.
It was then that he started shouting in anger, even cursing my name of all things. It was only a matter of time before he got in, cleaned the place up and told the police how sorry he was that ‘his dear old friend’s heart just gave up’. My last thoughts were of my daughter, of never having the chance to fix my mistakes as a father. I finally passed out.
And yet my assumed death was not to be. I woke to find myself in the white glow of a hospital room, my hand held tightly by my daughter who slept in a chair next to my bed. The doctor who attended to me said that I had suffered another heart attack, but one which was not as severe as the last and that, while I was to take it easy, with some therapy I would recover.
The police were keen to speak with me. I gave them my account of what had occurred, and they in turn told me of all they knew. My unconscious body had been discovered next to a main road just outside of Blackwood forest, on the outskirts of the nearest town. The cabin was thoroughly searched and was found in the same condition as I had left it, the window smashed, and the front door locked and barricaded from the inside. There was no trace of Jai or my wife, they simply could not be found. The only evidence that they had ever been there were their footprints in the mud around the cabin, accompanied by a third much larger set, which led back, deep into Blackwood forest.