The purpose for my documentation is not due to inspiration, but rather, skepticism. A conversion of doubt, wonder and dread.
It all came together when local historical records confirmed these events took place. Also, the dates, when and where and whom, proved accurate. I realized how that night, when I heard this story, something had occurred; and, its meaning, I leave for the reader to decide.
My decision to record and document this may lead to consequences I have no desire to experience.*
Damn conscience, damn memory, damn story—it haunts with a relentless need to be passed on. Even now, the reluctance to continue writing flares up. A familiar paralysis of thought slows the movement of my hand.
In memory of the people whom history and folk tales have unjustly excluded, leaving them forgotten.
In memory of those who died knowing what we do not know and hopefully, never shall experience.
Neither do we have any concept, nor ability for comprehending, how their lives were ended, taken for no reason, except a Dark Fate. May we remember them now. And also, be wary of the cause, for the Stranger still walks among us, eager with pride.
*As the Author risks, the Reader also takes a chance. A subsequent vulnerability contingent with this story warrants a word of caution. Reference to these ‘possible’ consequences, if necessary, are well documented and may be found in the concluding Index. –SPH 2001
May 3, 1987 Northern Kansas
Only a few weeks away from graduation, a buddy of mine suggested we skip class and head out to one of our favorite camping sites for the weekend. So, we packed our gear and drove out into the wilderness. I had an old Eagle Hatchback and like most high school kids lucky enough to have a car, considering its tendency to break-down on a long drive, never crosses the adolescent mind. And then, the car breaks down.
We had to walk about 20 miles to get to the next town and the sun was already low in the sky. There was little chance a passing car or truck might come. We had chosen a dirt road, desolate and rarely used, for a “short-cut.” So, we kicked stones about and tossed pebbles over the ridge, debating between walking at night, waiting by the car, or setting up camp near-by.
At first, my buddy was hell-bent on walking to town, while I thought the idea of getting hit by a car or truck not worth the risk. Eventually, the light dimmed enough to encourage a hasty survey of the area for a decent campsite before we lost the light completely.
It took us maybe 15 minutes and we came upon the most amazing spot imaginable. So excited by its unanticipated prospect for fishing, climbing, hunting and an ideal shelter, I elected to gather kindling, wood and start the embers. He made several trips to the car and brought the supplies, leaving a note in the event someone happened upon the Hatchback.
When we had both finished the work, I felt a sense of freedom and adventure. Sitting next to the cheerful light of our big campfire, I leaned back to look at the stars. It was a pitch black sky, no moon and no stars. Clouds must have rolled in. I mentioned this off-handedly. My comrade joked about how we managed to avoid disaster in the nick-of-time.
“Dude, man, it’s dark as hell. No way would I’ve been able to see a thing after that last hike down here. If I had to do one more, I bet ya’ I’d have fallen, BOOM! just like that, breaking my leg or something. AND I admit, you’re right about not walking that road at night, dude, seriously, it’s actually pretty spooky once it gets dark.”
“I wonder where we are, actually…?”
I stared into the fire and felt anxious, but, I could not understand why.
“I dunno. I think it’s some place that used to be a big farm or whatever back in the 1800s.”
“Huh,” I paused, “how do you know that?”
“There was a sign a ways back. One of those historical marker-things: It said, Hayworth Parish, I think, and something about Miller’s Ravine.”
“Wait–? Did you say, ‘Miller’s Ravine?’”
“Um, yeah,” he glanced at me like I was acting weird, “Miller’s Ravine. That’s what I said. Why are you looking at me like that?”
I glared at him (sometimes this guy could be a total asshole and I did not want to spend the weekend with him if he was going to be in one of his “Moods.”)
“Okay, okay, whatever, dude,” raising his hands and conceding, “just, like, chill. Hey, let’s light up, relax some, cuz we deserve it. Too much stress, ya? Let’s just forget about…. I dunno, whatever, cool?”
He pulled a joint out from his pack of Marlboros and lit-up. I had looted my father’s liquor stash in the basement and found a bottle of cheap whiskey I knew my parents wouldn’t miss. Pretty soon, any thoughts of where we were, what had happened, were forgotten as we laughed and carried on. I remember we were actually having one of the best nights I can remember from back then.
I don’t know how much time passed. I saw the fire was low. Suddenly, that anxiety started to knowing at me again. It sobered me up quickly, realizing we needed more firewood. That meant hiking out into the darkness of the woods. I did not have time to really make a survey of the terrain before. Big mistake. I got all the firewood and kindling from one spot nearby. It had gotten so dark, I just kept to one path until I cleared the spot out. I thought we had plenty of wood, in fact, more than we would need. This wouldn’t be that big of a problem except my buddy was right. The area was treacherous. The lack of familiarity with our surrounding, in addition to the darkness, meant we were going to have to be extremely careful or go without the fire.
“….so then, he’s sayin’ ‘GET OUT OF THE HOUSE,’” roaring with laughter, my comrade had no idea we had a big problem. I just stared at him not really listening or even able to interrupt his rendition of Richard Pryor’s famous routine.
He swigged more whiskey, giggling uncontrollably as he continued, “but white people are like, ‘I’m gonna stay, hee hee….’ But me, us black people are like, ‘OKAY! I’M GETTING THE FUCK OUTTA THE HOUSE!’”
I could not speak. I just stared at the dying fire, at the intoxicated teenager and waited for him to realize something was wrong. It took a while.
“Hey-hey-hey, yo, what’s that look? Awww, shit, dude’s trippin’!!” He exploded with another fit of giggling. I grabbed at the whiskey bottle and jerked it away from him, took a big long gulp and poured the last few drops so they sizzled on the fire’s embers.
“What the hell, man!” He stood up aggressively and moved toward me, “What the fuck is your damage, like, why be such a jerk all of a sudden, Tweaker?”
For some reason, I felt unthreatened, only disdain, slowly finding my voice, “Have you noticed the fire.”
“Have. You. Noticed,” and I gestured to the dying light and dwindling embers, “the FIRE.”
He stopped and looked and then seemed to have the same reaction I had when I first realized the implications. Ironically, we were about to learn the firewood was not going to be a big problem.
“Ohhhhh… oh, shit.” He spoke almost to himself and sitting back down, stared at the fire with wide eyes. Neither of us spoke a word or made a sound.
Something was not right. I knew it. Then, my friend: sitting still, taught and transfixed. I knew he could feel it, too. Neither of us wanted to bring it up. We knew it was there already.
I don’t know why I kept thinking, over and over again, “Don’t you dare mention something like that out loud. I don’t know why but for some reason, that causes its manifestation. Just sit and stay silent. Stay still.”
A rock fell close by and must have hit a tree trunk or something because there was a loud bang as it hit. Both of us jumped and gasped but I stayed silent. I was the only one to keep still.
“What the hell was that? Am I crazy? Dude, is it just me or is there something not right? What the fuck was that? Is someone there?”
I wanted to knock him out. A solid blow to his nose would have shut him up, I thought. When the sound of footsteps slowly approaching the campsite were undeniable, he shut up. We looked at each other as if demanding one or the other to do something.
“Letting your fire die, I see.”
The voice came from the edge of the wood, close to the campsite. An odd silhouette of the thing that spoke came slowly forward, “Good thing I have been gathering wood for myself. Aren’t you boys glad I happened by?”
He limped into view. Or she limped into view. I could not tell whether the stranger was a man or a woman, only short and round and weathered with glinting black eyes. It doesn’t matter and I mention it only to convey how odd and mysterious this person seemed.
A bundle of firewood lay heavily on his back, making him bend over to carry it. “Mind if I share your fire and sit with you a spell?”
Instinct finally kicked in, but for me, I moved to help the old person with the load of firewood, stopping my buddy from insulting him or worse. I put my hand on his shoulder.
“No man, I’ll help our friend here. Why don’t you see about cooking up some of that chili?”
The load of firewood was heavier than I imagined any human could carry. I fell back hard on my tailbone, wincing. Then I heard this gurgling noise, guttural and cruel. I looked up in alarm in the direction of this alien sound. Looking down on me, the blackest black eyes of any human I’ve ever seen, shining with glee, was the Stranger. That gurgling was…. Laughter?
Yes, the Stranger’s chuckle of amusement, “Look ‘ee that, hurh-hurgh, on your ass. A heavy weight for a boy, eh? Heh! Hurh-ehrl-gluh-hurh-ghluh…”
“Yeah, it’s heavy all right. Mind if I build up the fire, then?”
“Yessss, you go on and do that. Hey there,” he waddled over to where my buddy was lighting a cigarette, “gimme one of those tobacco sticks, friend.”
Was it the way he spoke? The tone of his voice seethed with malicious and provocative intent. If I had a choice to leave, I would. I felt like running back to the car. But something else kicked in:
“ME TOO!” I shouted, rudely.
It surprised me, as well as my friend. He handed the man a cigarette, in silence, while staring at me in shock. I had this instinctive, knee-jerk reaction to get his attention but why? As his face darkened into a scowl I knew well, I understood why I shouted and was relieved the distraction worked. It was crucial. My friend was easily antagonized and frequently scrapped with anyone who tried to mess with him. And that was the very thing this interloper wanted from us. I don’t know why I sensed it or acted on it but that doesn’t matter either.
He charged into confrontation, aggressively pushing me backwards, hurling a slew of curses and I let him unload. I was watching the stranger’s shoulders twitching. It was laughter, again. That man did enjoy listening, found amusement in our fight.
I grabbed my friend’s wrist firmly, mouthed an apology and then hastily cautioned him to keep cool. I started handing him wood to carry. We couldn’t risk that man noticing, so, our communication, luckily, could happen through looks and small gestures. We’d done this sort of thing together with our teachers and coaches all through high school. At that point, he seemed to understand and we made a mutual, silent pact. Then, returned to the fire, each of us carrying a load of wood. The Stranger clapped his hands.
“Build her up big, boys, lots of wood, now. Make it so the flames leap up, sizzling and dancing for me… uh, for us, friends. Plenty to burn….”
We both kept ourselves busy, getting the cookery assembled, finding the utensils and opening cans of chili. The stranger stared into the fire like he was watching a film or television show. We kept silent, as he kept smoking our cigarettes and mumbling things. He’d grunt and make those gurgling sounds.
“Inhuman.” I thought, “Evil.”
Shuddering, the two words echoed over and over again.
It began to sink in with each grunt and gurgle. I forced the thought away. Still, my skin crawled and a wave of sick fear would roll over me after he made those sounds. It kept getting worse until my knees turned to jelly. I had to lean on my duffle bag, my head swirling and lungs struggling for air, until the wave finally eased.
Had I forgotten there was another bottle of bourbon? I pulled it from the bottom of the bag and stared at it, trying to remember.
“All right, dude, we’re in the money! Why’d you hold out so long?”
“I forgot I had it, actually….”
“Well, pass it over, I’m thirsty as hell,” my friend reached his arm out and I gave him the bottle, still trying to figure out where it came from.
“Holy sh-sh-shit!” and I looked up to see his reaction to the liquor. It was as if he’d taken a shot of grain alcohol or moonshine for the first time. “Where’d you…whew! …get this? I didn’t know your Pops had his own still.”
“Hey, Boy!” The Stranger interjected angrily, “Don’t let that chili burn, now, it’s starting to scald. Pass that bottle here and you,” pointing to me and grinning, “go get us some more of that wood. Ah-hurlgh-hurh-ehrlgah…”
I wretched at the sight and sound, reeled around towards the direction of the supply and almost tripped over my own feet. The sensation was a surreal intoxication, not like being drunk, but like a fever dream. I had to work so hard at steadying myself I forgot about the mysterious bottle of liquor that seemed to magically appear. By the time I got back to the fire with the wood, the chili was distributed onto plates and they were already eating.
My stomach felt queasy, my ears were ringing. An odd heaviness and imbalance made me move slowly. I guess I did not pay attention to their conversation until I had been sitting still long enough and the sensation had almost gone away.
They were passing the bottle back and forth. My friend was already slurring his words. The Stranger seemed just the same as before, if not more predatory. His black eyes glinted in the firelight and focused on me.
“Lookee at you.”
My friend smirked, “Yooz whack, man, noz chee-chil-ee?”
The Stranger leaned in towards my friend but didn’t take his eyes off of me, “Lookee! How’s about that, eh? Not eatin’ and not drinkin’ with us.”
“Jyah, wazz-up, man?”
“Give that boy some of this here to wet his lips,” and the stranger passed the bottle to my friend to give to me.
“I love ya doood,” he snickered, swaying back and forth, almost falling into me as he passed the bottle.
I humored him. The situation was already out of control. The only choice I figured I had left was to play dumb. imitate the same lack of awareness. I knew I had to drink even though I didn’t want whatever was in that bottle.
READ THE CONCLUSION IN 2 WEEKS, WHEN I POST PART II OF “The Stranger From Miller’s Ravine”
Story by Kimberly Cox, Copyright 2015, USA