The Black Trees
by Walter Eugene Lane
Copyright 2020 © Walter Eugene Lane
nights back, my dog Baxter was in the backyard hooked up to his tie-out
cable. He likes it out there; I think he enjoys looking out for any
woodland critters that may come crawling out of the nearby wooded
areas. Often a noisy dog, barking more than the neighbors probably
appreciate, he was quiet—too quiet. When he gets this quiet that’s when
I worry. I checked on him and, as I feared, he was gone. Once again, he
had pulled up the metal stake from the ground that his tie-out cable
was attached to. I guess he took off after some animal he’d caught
sight of. The ground was still soaked from heavy rain two days before,
and it’s not hard for a big dog like a Rhodesian Ridgeback to take off
running and yank the stake out of the soft ground. I heard him bark
once so I knew he was still at least somewhere in the neighborhood. For
several minutes, I looked around and listened as he’d bark once in a
while then go silent for a good bit. If he had just kept barking, I
could have pinpointed him easy.
stepped inside, got a flashlight, and walked to the back of my property
and into my neighbor’s yard. With utility buildings standing on one
side and trees on the other, it was very dark and secluded there; all I
had to see by was the flashlight, a not very powerful one at that. I
walked farther onto the neighbor’s property and wondered how many
horror movies started this way: a guy walking alone in a secluded place
in the dark of night … Not a comforting thought. While I walked across
the property—along a line of well-trimmed trees planted, no doubt, to
enhance the landscape—I got closer to the wooded thicket. I noticed
then this endeavor had a distinct Blair Witch feel to it.
the moment, Baxter was quiet and I couldn’t see him anywhere around. I
walked back to my property, went through my yard, and stepped around
the retaining wall to the empty house and yard next to mine. He wasn’t
there. The barks, when they did come, seemed to be from all over. I had
noticed before how that loud noises in this old neighborhood echoed
against the houses, built at odd angles to each other, making it hard
to tell just where they came from.
I thought he might be somewhere on the next street over, the one my
backyard neighbor’s property faced. I drove over there and got out. He
barked again and it sounded like it was coming from very near where I
had just been standing, very near my house. I
drove back, parked, and started on foot again. I walked down to the
street that my street connected with and heard him bark from somewhere
to my right again sounding very near my house. I walked back up my
street and went again to the empty house and backyard. Believe me, it’s
unsettling to be in a dark backyard enclosed by trees, fallen branches,
and bushes alone at night. It was late; no one was around, and it was
very quiet. Watching a scary movie is one thing; being in one is
As before, he wasn’t there but he did bark again and
this time he sounded extremely close, so close that if it wasn’t so
dark, and trees, bushes, and fences weren’t in the way, I think I could
have seen him and maybe even walked up to him. Calling
to him, I got no response. All this time I kept wishing he’d bark more.
The back of this property is bordered by a fence overgrown with bushes,
part of a retaining wall, and a thicket of woods pushing right against
the fence. Bushes grew everywhere. No way to get through to Baxter from
where I stood.
went back to my property, through my backyard, and back onto the
neighbor’s property. Here, there were lots of trees and lots of
darkness. Fumbling, stumbling, careful with every step, I approached
the thicket of trees located behind the fence of the empty house’s
barked again; the sound came from directly from the dark woods in front
of me and not that far away. Finally, I had pinned him down! He was
indeed in the overgrown thicket of trees and wooded debris as I had
thought (and feared).
forward through some overgrowth to get a closer look, I pointed my
flashlight into the thicket. Staring at me was a pair of orange eyes
glowing in the dark. I called Baxter’s name but he didn’t answer.
I hoped with all my heart it was him those glowing eyes belonged to. He
huffed a bit in a way I was familiar with; after a moment, he moved
around enough so that the flashlight caught his body shape. It was him
all right. Just leave him until the morning, get him then? I couldn’t
do that. I had to go in and get him. He still didn’t bark much. Later,
I learned dogs, when trapped like this, feel vulnerable to attacks and
don’t want to give away their position.
the dark, with just a flashlight, I stumbled my way into the thicket
stepping through the forest deadfall: the debris of twigs, branches,
piles of dead leaves all over the ground. There were some discarded
items, old tires and such, lying about as well. I live alone and no one
knew I was there; I’m not a young man anymore and have problems with
both vision and balance. I felt extremely vulnerable just then.
times my feet sank deeply into the deadfall coming almost to my ankle.
I was hoping I wouldn’t get hurt and, believe me, prayers were going
up. Thank goodness it was winter. If it were warm weather and the place
had been infested with copperheads … well, I shudder to think. I’m
grateful also it wasn’t raining. According to the weather report, that
was for tomorrow.
continued through the debris covering the ground, the trees around me,
and the broken-off limbs hanging at odd angles blocking my way.
Stepping over them took a good deal of effort; I’m no athlete. And it
was hard bending down and nearly having to crawl under them to get by
and into the thicket. I nearly fell a few times. If I had fallen and
hurt myself, no one would have known. As I got closer, Baxter whimpered
once in a while. By now, I could see him by the flashlight. His bright
eyes and wagging tail let me know he was glad to see me.
I got close enough that I could lean forward and push against some of
the smaller tree limbs, stretch out my hand and reach his collar. I
fumbled with the latch of his tie-down cable trying to release him. It
was the cable that was holding him up. It had gotten tangled up in the
bushes and small trees of the thicket when he ran into it chasing, I
suppose, some animal. I was finally able to undo the cable and
set him free. Immediately, he scampered out of the thicket in a matter
of a few seconds without a single glance back at me.
slowly worked my way out of the thicket and back to my back door.
Baxter was running loose but I wasn’t worried. I knew from experience
he’d run around the neighborhood for a few minutes enjoying his freedom
then come back to me. He’s a very loyal dog and loves me deeply.
the front porch, I stood and whistled for him. After a moment, I saw
him galloping up the street toward me. I let him in the house and,
after he settled down from greeting me and eating something, he took
his teddy bear from the floor and got on my bed and fell asleep.
next morning, it started raining. Standing on my back porch, I looked
through the veil of raindrops toward the scene of last night’s little
adventure. In the gray light, I saw a group of black trees among the
thicket, dead-looking, tall and thick. I couldn’t recall ever noticing
them before. I’ve lived in this house all my life, but I just couldn’t
remember seeing them. How can you see something all your life and not
notice it, especially something as spooky-looking as those trees? They
looked like arms sticking out of the ground; the ivy and vines covering
them were like thick hair on a brawny man’s arm; the topmost limbs
spread out like fingers reaching for something.
closer look at the trees was in order. Isn’t that a common horror
trope? The idiot, not satisfied with leaving well enough alone, goes
out to investigate the mysterious whatever. If you’ve read a scary
story or watched a horror movie where an idiot did something like that
and asked yourself, "Why are you doing that, stupid!" all I can say is,
in my case, I just wanted to know what that place looked like in the
daylight. It’s only a walk of a few seconds, so why not? I didn’t
realize the danger. Idiots never realize the danger; that’s what makes
the rain, I wasn’t going to fool with it that day. After a couple of
days, I made the short trip back to the thicket and the Black Trees as
I came to think of them. I guess this is where I’m supposed to say
something like, “A short walk that lasted forever.” Or maybe, “A short
walk to a long nightmare.” You know; something stupid like that. But it
was just a walk I wished I’d never taken.
ground, grass, and debris had dried out pretty well. Looking into the
thicket, the first thing I noticed was, as luck would have it, I had
picked the worse possible point of entry the other night. It was more
grown-over and congested than anywhere else in and around the trees. I
walked around and saw there were some slightly easier ways in, but none
were a breeze.
spot facing directly west seemed better. It was still hard going but a
little easier than my previous route. Still, I had to fight my way
through tree limbs that seemed to consciously resist my going forward.
And walking on the ground covered with so much deadfall, years of
accumulated dead leaves, and woodland debris was like walking on a
floor covered with thin mattresses. It reminded me of walking on the
wrestling mats back in high school gym class. Each step was unsteady
and I stood a good chance of falling over. Not good at my age. I made
my way along and could have gotten my eyes scratched by limbs and twigs
flying in my face had I not been wearing my glasses.
I reflected on how glad I was there were no copperhead snakes there
this time of year; then I realized there seemed to be nothing alive
there at all. I had seen no spider webs, no squirrels in the trees or
running along on the ground, nothing. And a question came to
mind: Why is it that only that small group of trees was dead? The trees
above and below these were fine. Why not these?
ahead, I spotted an old wooden crate sitting near the center of the
thicket. It was surrounded and covered by dead leaves and twigs. It
looked very old.
struggled through the rest of the way and found myself in a small
circle-shaped clearing among the group of trees, about thirteen feet in
diameter. The trees around it had grown in an almost perfect circle.
Whether that had been planned or an accident of nature, I couldn’t
tell. It made me think of the infamous Devil’s Tramping Ground over
in the next county. I hoped this clearing didn’t serve the same purpose
as that ancient spot.
my left, some yards away, I saw Baxter’s tie-out cable. The end with
the tie-out stake attached was tangled in a bush and a further length
was wrapped around a small, healthy-looking tree standing apart from
the Black Trees. The clasp on the other end of the cable lay on the
ground and I knew that was the spot I had reached to release him but
from the other direction. He didn’t get very close to the clearing and
those Black Trees; for some reason, I was glad of that.
into the clearing, I saw the old crate better. Burned into the sides of
the box was: Berry Bros. & Rudd No. 3 St James’s Street, London.
The old crate seemed to be held together mainly by force of habit more
than anything else. I think if I had kicked it, it would have shattered
into mere particles and drifted away like dandelion pieces blown in the
wind. The fact the words had been burned into the wood, not stenciled,
is the only reason any lettering survived. Perhaps someone brought a
case of wine here to kill the time while keeping watch over something
or someone. Who knows, they could have used the crate as a seat while
they drank and watched whatever they were watching—if indeed anybody
had watched anything.
In smaller letters at the very bottom of the crate, it read: 1699.
small Southern town has roots going back that far and farther. Did this
mean someone coming over from England brought some wine with them going
back to then? On a local history website, I saw a photograph of this
area, including this spot, that was taken in 1912. It was grainy and
fuzzy but it was still easy to see a steam-powered locomotive on the
tracks about 500 yards south of where I stood (not the current tracks,
of course) and the surrounding area. The area was empty in 1912, and as
far as I know, there was nothing here in 1699. The town at that time
was little more than a crossroads that sat in what is now the east part
of town. As far as I know, except for an old, abandoned school built
around 1859 visible in the 1912 picture, this area was always a
get a closer look, I walked across a big pile of leaves, and my foot
struck against a hard surface. I thought maybe I had kicked against a
rock concealed by a high pile of leaves. I leaned over and saw a black,
object with a long, straight edge to it.
here, it’s not that unusual to find loose bricks lying around. The
school I mentioned was dismantled in 1937 and the bricks were taken and
used in other buildings around town. A few strays are not unheard of
even in wooded areas. But this was no brick. This was solid stone:
black, smooth, and beautifully veined marble.
my foot, I brushed away more leaves and saw that the stone was very
long; its entire length was hidden by the rest of the leaves. The stone
was sticking up about four inches out of the ground. With my bare
hands, I swept aside the remaining dead leaves to unveil an
approximately six-foot by three-foot marble rectangle. It looked much
like some kind of tomb.
part I kicked against seemed to be a lip about four inches above the
ground, probably there to keep water from seeping into the interior of
whatever this was. Dirt covered the top completely. It seemed to be a
full-length black marble slab and looked well and truly old.
using my bare hands, I knocked away some loose dirt covering it. With
my foot, I kicked away, using my heel, at the stubborn, aged dirt that
clung bonded by time to the slab. With some effort, it broke away in
big chunks and flew off uncovering more of the marble it had concealed
for who knows how long.
seen similar grave coverings before in older cemeteries; long, concrete
or marble grave covers that lent a high degree of dignity and elegance
to a grave—but not exactly like this: This
was no marker any Christian cemetery would ever have permitted. It was
covered with symbols conveying an allegiance to a dark belief system
that possibly could have caused its adherents to be burned at the stake
once upon a time. Chiseled into the cold stone, all around the edges,
were odd symbols: Pentagrams (of course) in the ascending node (the top
of the star pointing upward), and what looked like Runic symbols of
various kinds. In the center of the black slab, chiseled into the
stone, was some Latin text: MALEDICTI SUNT IN SEMPITERNUM. Dirt had
filled the grooves cut by the chisel giving the sysbols and text a
terra cotta coloration.
pulled my cheap, crummy smartphone from my shirt pocket to search the
internet for the Latin text. Not a great thumb-typer, it took me a
minute to enter it into the search engine. The piece of junk phone took
its sweet time getting the results but, finally, I got the translation: ACCURSED FOREVER.
over the tomb, now sure that’s what it was, I wondered just what I had
gotten myself into. So many times in my life, I have wished I could
roll back the clock and undo a decision I had made; this was one of
those times. Why didn’t I just leave well enough alone and stay away
from this place?
looked over those strange symbols and recalled the Scripture in
Revelation about the angel that cast Satan into the Abyss, covered it
to shut him up in the bottomless pit, and set a seal over it to
imprison him. Is that what I was standing over, a seal of some sort?
These symbols, were they there to keep something trapped in that tomb?
Those Runic characters, just what did they mean? Were they a spell of
suppose this the part where I was supposed to accidentally cut my
finger and let a few drops of blood fall on the slab, or read out loud
the Runic letters and by accident break or enact some spell. It was
nothing like that. Idiots need not work that way. We can foul up
royally by the simplest of means.
I walked around examining the marble slab, I tripped over a tree root
hidden by more dead leaves. I fell and landed painfully hard against
the bottom of the tomb on my left knee. It hurt like a hammer blow. I
yelled loud enough to solicit from Baxter over in my backyard one
responding bark as if he were asking, “You okay?”
how I discovered the marble slab was cantilevered. Balanced in the
middle, my body weight (and I'm kind of a big guy) pushing down against
the bottom of the heavy slab made the top rise up. It brought to mind
Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu and how the landing party on the
island in a similar way opened Cthulhu’s tomb. But in my case, no
monster came scampering out after me. Nothing came out … at least not
then. In an awkward knelling position, I closed my eyes and gave the
pain a few moments to subside.
right knee resting on the ground, the left one on the tomb, it caused
me lean hard right. I opened my eyes again and I could see, around the
upraised slab, inside the tomb. It was incredibly shallow, two feet at
most. A male figure lay there clothed in a hooded, long, gray cassock
perfectly clean. He looked like a monk or maybe a Druid. His eyes were
closed. It was obvious from the accumulated dirt and leaves covering
the tomb, he’d been interred there a long time. However, he seemed
perfectly preserved; there was no indication of decay at all. He looked
more asleep than dead. He had an ordinary sort of face, clean-shaven,
no postmortem whiskers—a face that under ordinary circumstances would
not attract much notice. With the tomb so shallow the slab must have
been almost resting against his nose. Maybe it indeed pressed down on
his nose. Perhaps making and holding contact with the body was how the
spell, if any, worked.
interior of the tomb, as far as I could see around the approximately
five-foot-seven body, was made of the same black marble as the slab.
But by now I didn’t care. Curiosity had by now no hold on me. I just
wanted to get out of there.
put both hands on the bottom of the slab and pushed down hard. The
thing must have weighed a ton, but with the cantilever action, it
wasn’t that hard to handle. I pulled my aching knee away and slowly let
the slab back down. The scraping of the marble slab coming against the
lipped interior of the shallow tomb set my teeth on edge. Grunting, I
pushed myself up and backed away. Before I left, I took one last look
at the tomb and hoped whatever the slab and its symbols had been doing
for who knows how long, it would continue to do. As best as my aching
knee allowed, I hurriedly limped out of the thicket and to my backyard.
before we went in the house, Baxter suddenly twirled around nearly
pulling away from my hand. Facing the trees, he started screeching with
every ounce of his being, every muscle in his body tight as a wire.
Every other dog in the neighborhood did the same. It sounded like a
canine air raid drill. They were not barking in sympathy to Baxter;
they started when he started so they must have been barking for the
same reason … whatever that was. It didn’t last long. After a few
seconds, they all quieted down as dogs do when the prey has escaped.
Wide eyed, I looked around for a second and hurried Baxter inside.
a few days, when my nerves (and knee) had recovered enough, I decided
to walk outside and get a picture of the Black Trees to post online in
case there was somebody that could provide me with some information. I
took my cell phone and stepped over, with a slight limp, to the empty
property beside my house, the viewpoint better there. I got as good a
picture as my cheap smartphone would allow. In my house, I connected my
phone to my computer and downloaded the photo and gave it a cursory
glance. It looked good enough to post. It wasn’t until several days
later that I looked at the photo more closely and saw something that
caught my eye.
zoomed in on the photo and examined the lower middle portion. My eyes
stretched wide. There behind one of the Black Trees stood a hooded
figure, his right hand resting against the tree. He was peering around
it—looking at me. I sat back from the computer and stared at nothing
for a while.
that day, I thought about something that had happened a couple of weeks
earlier: One afternoon when Baxter was in the backyard, I heard him
barking but this time much louder and more excited than usual. I went
to the backdoor and saw him standing at the edge of the neighbor’s yard
barking at something and jumping around. I went out to see what was
on the ground near a utility building was a possum. It looked dead.
Baxter was not tearing at it; rather, he would warily approach it, bark
repeatedly, and back away like he was confused as what to do. It had
been decades since I’d seen a possum so this was interesting. I
wondered if Baxter had killed it, but I noticed there were no tears or
wounds at all on the body and no bloodstains. The fact he was barking
at it and not tearing at it made me think he probably didn’t kill it.
It occurred to me the possum may simply be ‘playing possum,’ pretending
to be dead. The animal certainly looked dead. The way it lay there
motionless, eyes closed, its jaws stretched wide open, not flinching at
all at the barking dog threatening it, I was sure it was dead. I
grabbed Baxter and took him inside the house.
next day, I checked on the possum and it was gone. No bloodstains on
the ground so I doubt it had been wounded. I guess maybe it truly was
playing dead after all. I knew possums did this but I had never
actually witnessed it. First time for everything, I guess. Someone
later told me that possums, in fact, do more than just merely play
dead. In a crisis, they go into a state similar, I guess, to catatonia
in people, and actually lose consciousness and appear as being truly
dead, a sly creature that plays dead so thoroughly it convinces itself
it is dead. This one sure had me and Baxter fooled.
the image of that hooded figure, whom I now think of as Mr. Hood,
comes to mind. I see him lying motionless in that shallow tomb, and I
see him staring from those dark trees. I wonder if he had been
playing possum with me, as the possum did with Baxter, waiting for me
to leave so he could get out of the tomb without hinderance? Maybe he
had been playing dead for so long under the influence of a curse or a
spell that even he thought he was dead, that is until I broke the
seal or the spell or the curse or whatever and released him from his
confines. And why was he there to begin with?
I pay a lot of attention to those trees and often wonder what lurks
there. No one goes there. And now that I think of it, over the many
years and decades that I’ve lived a stone’s throw away, I can’t recall
ever seeing anyone go into that thicket or near those Black Trees. Of
course, I couldn’t remember even seeing the Black Trees themselves
before Baxter got stuck near them. Why was that? Was it part of the
spell at work? Was me accidentally opening the tomb also the result of something at work?
Ridgebacks make good guard dogs. They’re agile, strong, and very
capable of defending themselves. One neighbor lady who had owned three
Ridgebacks told me they are fiercely loyal; she said Baxter would
defend me with his life if need be. So I’m glad I’ve got a great guy
like him around. He still likes to get in the backyard and keep an eye
on things, and he still barks at night. But nowadays I wonder just what
it is he’s barking at.
Note: The photos on this page have not been doctored, staged or faked in
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