“There's darkness in those trees, boy.” The old man whispered, looking towards the shadows but not gesturing.
“There's darkness everywhere.” came the reply, and the boy knew immediately that he had phrased it wrong. His grandfather was not one to speak without reason, and if the boy had just thought for a few seconds before speaking, he would have realized that there was nothing he needed to say. He did not correct himself though, he just waited silently for the old man to continue.
“The darkness in there is not from a lack of light, its dark in there at .” The grandfather continued, “That is one grove of trees you avoid, no matter what, you mind me now.”
The boy nodded, as dark as this night was, he knew his grandfather had seen the movement of his head because he started walking again. They always walked before dinner when they camped. Grandfather always told him that he needed to know how to move through nature at night.
This was the first time they went camping on this part of the old mans property. They usually went south, across the road that cut through the land on its way to town. This time they were north, in the hills. Grandfather had waited until the boy was older, with ten years behind him before they went this way, it was more difficult to camp up there, easier to lose footing and go rolling if you weren't careful.
The boy knew where they were at, he knew they walked straight north up into the hills, and then cut east for about half of a mile. The were walking downhill now, southwest and back to camp. The boy put the grove out of his mind, it was off limits and didn't bear thinking about. He paid attention to his grandfathers movements, watched every step as the old man skillfully moved down the hillside, and mimicked him as they went. The wind had picked up as they moved away from the grove, coming up the hills towards them. He loved the smell that the wind carried on it, a crisp odor that you could almost taste. As small as the town he lived in with his parents was, and as close in proximity, the buildings and groupings of people spoiled the wind before it could get to his house.
He had shot a rabbit earlier in the day, and with some potatoes and carrots that they brought from grandfathers garden, they had a good stew bubbling in a pot over the fire in camp. He believed he could smell that on the wind as well.
This was his first time in the hills but he knew this was a spot grandfather came to often. The stones were already circled in the fire ring and charred wood and ashes lay in the center. The fire was already going when he saw the rabbit at the tree line and loaded a round into his .22 rifle. It was a close shot and he made it with ease, his grandfather had taught him much in his ten years. The early kill made for an even more relaxing evening, he did not have to go hunting for dinner, it came to him.
He skinned the rabbit himself while his grandfather watched, this was only his second rabbit that he did by himself and was still a little unsure. But soon, with a trip to the creek they soon had everything simmering in a pot over the fire. The boy spoke about nothing in particular and the old man listened as they watched the sun sink away and finally dip below the land. As darkness gathered around them, they began the slow trek through the hills, the boy listening as grandfather pointed things out.
When they arrived back, they sat at the fire, each consuming two bowls of stew with half of loaf of home made bread that his mother sent with him. Bellies full and tired from the walk in the hills, they rolled out their bedrolls and were both very quickly asleep.
The boy dreamed about the grove, but in his dream it was daylight, his grandfather was walking into it smiling. He wondered why he was forbidden when it made his grandfather smile so going into it. It had to be harmless he thought, the wind moving the trees almost seemed to make the branches wave him in.
He awoke abruptly from the dream, hearing his grandfather snore softly a few feet away he laid his head back down and tried to go back to sleep, but the more the tried, the more he thought about the grove, and how safe it made him feel in the dream. He threw the blanket back before he realized he was going to do it, and began lacing his boots. He stood and started back up the hill, going back the way they had just hours before descended the hill. He didn't know why, but something was telling him he had to get a look at the grove once more tonight, it would not wait for daylight.
As he arrived he saw it a little better now that the moon had risen and was at its peak. It still had the foreboding feel that he had received when grandfather turned his attention towards it earlier. He looked from one end to the other, noticing how it grew from a considerably flatter area than anywhere else on the hill, as he looked to the right, he noticed what seemed to be something glowing in the left side of his peripheral. He glanced back quickly and lost it. He slowly turned his head to the right and it appeared again, soft and barely discernible. He moved his eyes slowly towards it and thought he actually got a look at it dead on before it faded. It seemed to him to be coming from the center of the grove, light where grandfather said there was only darkness. It beckoned him, called him to look closer, to find the light. He stepped closer to the edge than he would have thought possible with the fear growing inside him. So close in fact that he could reach out and touch the lower branches of the outer ring of trees.
It was then he finally saw the light as more than an illusion dancing in the corner of his eye. It was a faded blue glow, flickering like a flame. He stared at it, the edges of his vision darkening and lightening as he focused deeper on the light. A sleepy feeling crept into his head and he felt himself fall forward, only to catch himself with a quick step. This continued until he realized he was at the light, so close he could touch it. He blinked the trance-like feeling away and shook his head. Horror caved in on him as it dawned on him that he was in the circle, he turned to run and heard the sounds. Sounds of wood against wood, fluttering sounds as branches reached down to block off the gaps between them, he darted from the clearing into branches, trying to break through, He felt them swing away from him, then hammer back into him with a heavy force. It knocked him back, small green branches of the limb bringing welts on his skin. He screamed for his grandfather trying to push through again, feeling two limbs pummel him for his efforts.
The sound came during his fighting with the branches, he had heard it soft and in the background, but didn't acknowledge it until it had grown into a very distinct noise. As the limbs knocked him back a final time he did not get back up, he lay quiet listening. The sound was surrounding him, he could not find its direction. A breathy rushed cacophony rising in pith and volume, nearing him. He realized that he wasn't hearing it as much as feeling it, so strong that it had fooled his ears into thinking it was sound. Something was coming for him, and it seemed to be coming from inside his head. He stood to run at the natural barricade and wobbled, this thing was upon him, within him. Darkness crept into his vision punctuated by strobes of blue-white light. He realized the ground was rushing up at him, and blackness took over.
The old man awoke, a strange feeling washing over him. He sat up and saw that he was alone by the fire. He stood straight up and turned in place, looking for his grandson. It was then that he thought he heard him, far away, calling for him. The calls were coming from the hills.
He headed up the slope in his stocking feet, running harder than he had in years, calling out his grandsons name. The boy was silent now, but he knew where to go, there wasn't a doubt in his mind, though he wished there was. He crested the hill at the grove and stopped, heart pounding dangerously fast, his entire body bobbing with every rasping breath.
He saw the boy stumble from the grove, and limped over to him, catching him as he fell forward. They fell to the ground together, the boy a dead weight in his arms. Shallow breaths passed over the boys lips, which were forming words with no sound, thick blood drained from his ears and nose. The lips stopped moving in a position as if they were making an “o” sound and his last breath slid silently over them. The muscles in his face relaxed as his grandfathers clenched in a scowl. Tears welled in his eyes as he lifted his only grandson, turning to begin back down out of the hills.
He laid the boy out on his bedroll, stripping off his own t-shirt to wipe the blood from his face and neck, and covered him with a blanket. Tears were flowing freely in a mix of mourning and anger. He stood and chose a branch from the small pile of firewood. He used it to write “I'M SORRY” in the dirt by the still body of his grandson. His son would come looking for them by days end and he couldn't think of anything else. He was a man of few words. He looked at the blanket over the boy and said it out loud. “I'm sorry.” He wrapped the blood stained t-shirt around the branch and poured fuel from the lantern on it. He reached in the small pack he always camped with and found a box of wooden matches. Slipping them into the pocket of his trousers he began his last trip into the hills.
At the ring of trees he silently struck flame to the torch and began walking around the perimeter of the grove, touching flame to the underbrush and hanging branches as he went. As he arrived at his starting point, he strode into the center, trailing the torch through the underbrush as he went, the fire from the outer ring spreading quickly inside. This man of few words scanned around the grove and made his last statement. “You had to have him. Well come get me too you son of a bitch.” He threw the torch away as he felt something coming, rushing fast towards him. As it came to him, he walked into the flames.