The Black Trees
by Walter Eugene Lane
Copyright 2020 Walter Eugene Lane

black trees smallSeveral 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.

I 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.

At 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 something else.

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.

I 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 backyard.

Baxter 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).

Stumbling 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.

In 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.

Several 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.

I 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.

Finally, 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.

I 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.

On 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.
***
The 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.

A 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 them idiots.

With 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.

The 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.

A 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.

Again, 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?

Just 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.

I 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.

To 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.

Further 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.

Just speculation.

In smaller letters at the very bottom of the crate, it read: 1699.

Our 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 wilderness.

To 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.

Around 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.

With 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.

The 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.

Again 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.

I’ve 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.

I 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.

Standing 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?

I 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 some sort?

I 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.

As 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?”

That’s 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.
 

My 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.

More speculation.

The 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.

I 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.

Just 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.
***
After 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.

I 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.

Later 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 going on.

Lying 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.

The 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.

Often, 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?

Now, 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?

Rhodesian 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 any way.
hooded figure2 small
1912 photo


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