It was a bustling and busy Thanksgiving. The tiny house was even more crowded than most holidays. Blue smoke hung in a visible layer just inches below the ceiling. The noise around the kitchen table was so loud the kids in the living room could barely hear the TV. But they were wise, in that sneaky way that children can be. They were watching the picture but listening to the grown-ups speak.
It was a good way to gather gossip or maybe catch a dirty joke. And uncle Jimmy had shown up, which usually meant they’d get a whole bunch. It was kind of rare to see Jimmy and he seemed a little off. Normally, he was quite loud, but now he was quiet and seemed lost inside himself.
“You get a deer this year?” someone asked, not to anyone in particular, but to the men collectively as all were avid hunters, especially Jimmy. The replies worked their way around the room, and one voice was conspicuously silent.
“What about you, Jimmy?”
“Almost.” he said, and this was whispered but now filled the room with a nearly shocked silence of its own. Of all the men, only Jimmy had never failed to return from the forests with a deer.
If anyone had said anything, the subject would have changed and that would have been the end of it. But the quiet was so odd and out of place that no one spoke. Perhaps it was the quiet that made Jimmy go on.
“I spotted a good one, one of the biggest I ever saw. I won’t say it was a record-setter but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was. I had been walking to my blind when I saw him and knew I’d have to take an offhand shot. He saw me, too, and took off just as I pulled the trigger. I winged him.”
Everyone stayed quiet, not so much for the story but for the strange lack of energy in his voice and the odd expression he wore. He had a dreamy stare like he was trying to watch something on the moon.
“I tracked him for about a mile or so. I was so caught up in it that I wasn’t even watching where we were going. It was a lot of blood, easy to track, so much blood that I started to wonder why I hadn’t come up on him yet. Then I looked up and saw where I was, just outside Tinker’s Hollow.”
“No you wasn’t.” came a squeaky, smart-ass voice from the living room.
“Shut up Wayne!” a chorus of voices thundered in reply.
“I was scared.” Jimmy went on, “I wanted to stop right there and turn around. But it wouldn’t be right to leave that critter out there, and I couldn’t even say what I was afraid of, so I carried on. Let me have one of those beers.”
He took a drink, then he chugged about half of it. He sat the bottle down on the table, his expression still distant, still… traumatized.
“It didn’t look special or anything. There were the same old plants, trees, rocks… the same old stuff you’d see just about anywhere around here. I couldn’t see, hear, or smell anything wrong. But my feet got heavy and I crept along and my hands were shaking. I couldn’t help but feel like the hills were closing in behind me. But the blood was getting thinner and I knew, or thought I knew, that the deer had to be just up ahead. Then…”
He winced and almost seemed like he was actually going to burst into tears. He grabbed the bottle and finished it, gasping when it was gone.
“Then, I noticed how quiet it was. There were no birds, no squirrels, no noise at all. It’s not natural for the outdoors to be so silent. And I just kept thinking go a little farther, just a little more, just get the deer.”
He shivered as he said those words and suddenly everyone, even Wayne, knew he was thinking something else, something he wasn’t saying. And they knew he was telling this story because he had to tell it to someone, or at least that he had to say it aloud.
“Things happened really quick but somehow everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, like a movie picture… First, I saw the house.
“It sits up on a ledge above the valley floor. It’s made of stone, but covered with ivy. If you weren’t paying attention, you might think it was just part of the hill. It was the windows that gave it away. They still have glass in them, but it’s so warped it looks like ripples frozen in a pond. There was so much dust and darkness that I couldn’t see inside, but I was very much aware that I didn’t want to see inside. I thought,” he laughed a high, shrill, and unpleasant sound, “I thought something was in there, or lived in there, or that’s its lair or nest.
“I wanted to, had to look away, so I turned back to the blood trail. I realized something was wrong, very, very wrong. See, there was blood, but there were no tracks. The ground was mud and moss and a stumbling, dying deer should have just about torn it apart. It sounds crazy, but I thought that something had got that deer and was leaving a trail that was leading me.
“I’m a hunter, dammit!” he said and slammed his fist on the table, making everyone jump, “I’m a hunter and sure as shit someone or something was baiting me into a trap! And it was quiet, so damned quiet, and a thought came to me.
“It’s just peaceful, I thought. It’s the most peaceful place you’ve ever been. And the deer is just ahead. Go a little farther, just a little farther, and you’ll find it. Go a little more and you’ll find your deer… and you’ll find peace. A peace you’ve never known before.
“God help me, I wanted it. I even took a step. And I thought, Good.
“And I knew it wasn’t me thinking anymore. Then I looked up and I saw… No! I didn’t see that! I didn’t see anything! That wasn’t real! It can’t be real! And I couldn’t have seen it, because it couldn’t be real!”
His voice had fallen to a whisper and he was repeating this to himself as if he was trying to convince himself that it was true.
“I ran. I turned and ran and I could hear my heart thumping in my chest. It beat so hard it started hurting. It felt like someone was stabbing me. I thought I was going to die.” Then he added, “I think I’m going to retire from hunting. An old man like me has no business out in the woods.”
“That might be a good idea.” someone said.
After that Thanksgiving, uncle Jimmy never came back around. It was agreed that he had starting going soft in the head or that he had suffered a mild heart attack and had hallucinated something. Some of the men talked about going out there, just to see if the house was where he said, but no one ever did.
Uncle Jimmy lived another seventeen years, dying of liver failure. The autopsy didn’t find anything else wrong with him, with his heart or with his brain.
Two years after Jimmy died, little Wayne, now all grown up, would take a trip out in those woods to do a little bit of preseason poaching.
He would never come back.
story by Joe Stanley