TOUR THE HAUNTED WOODS
GHOST STORIES, HOTDOGS, AND S’MORES
AT THE CAMPFIRE
Wen tapped the poster with his long fingers. “When are we going to get to the campsite? I’m starved.”
“You’re always hungry,” I grumbled, then felt bad as I looked at his protruding ribs.
He shot me a sullen look. “Don’t spoil my fun. I’ve been looking forward to this since the sign went up.”
We continued through the darkening forest. The few birds that hadn’t headed south for the winter chattered as they bedded down for the night. A fresh breeze rattled the last stubborn leaves in the branches and knocked bare limbs together.
Wen licked his lips. “What kind of ghost stories do you think they’ll tell?”
“Oh, I’m sure it’ll be all the standard ones.”
“What, like monsters in the woods?” he chuckled.
“Sure. People love monster stories.”
The birds fell silent as we approached. The eerie scream of a fox echoed in the distance.
The trees grew denser and darkness settled around their feet. Leaves crunched and the occasional twig snapped as we walked along. The air was crisp and dry, smelling of leaves and dirt, with the occasional whiff of cedar or pine, carried on a gusty wind that wouldn’t lay.
It got darker and darker, and we didn’t seem any closer to the campfire. “We should have stayed on the trail, Wen.”
“I’m taking a shortcut.”
“We’re not lost, are we?”
“Of course not!” He surged ahead of me.
We were definitely lost. “I wonder if they’ve started the fire yet. Maybe we can follow the smell of the smoke.”
I sniffed the air, hopeful. But we were probably upwind of it still.
Wen snickered. “Worried about monsters? I think I smell a sasquatch.”
“Ha!” He knows Big Foots – Big Feet? – give me the creeps.
I thought we sounded like a herd of elephants moving through the silent trees. If there were monsters hunting us, we wouldn’t be too hard to find. Good thing there weren’t any. Probably.
“Look over there.” Wen paused and pointed off to the right. “I see a light.”
“Looks a little small for a campfire.”
“Of course, it’s not a campfire. I think it’s probably a flashlight. Or a lantern. Let’s go!”
I crossed my arms. “Instead of chasing after some lone person in the woods, I think we’d be better off re-tracing our steps. Whoever that is might not even be going to the campfire.”
Wen laughed. “Why else would anybody be out here in the forest tonight? It might even be the haunted woods tour. We could catch up.”
I frowned. Unlikely. “Fine.”
We followed the light for a while, but no matter how fast we moved, we couldn’t seem to get any closer to it.
I stopped. “I don’t like this, Wen. No way this is the tour group.”
“But it could be part of the tour.”
“I doubt that.”
As if it heard us, the light turned in our direction. Instead of moving away, it was now drifting towards us, bouncing gently as if it were a lantern being carried along.
Were they lost, too?
Closer and closer. The light floated along about three feet off the ground, and I could make out a figure on the other side. It wore mist like a shroud, and its large dark eyes sank into its pale face.
Wen cocked his head and smiled dismissively. “Ghost. They can’t do anything.”
I wasn’t so sure.
Without warning, the thing’s face split in half and a tongue shot out, straight at me, like a giant frog’s. It missed, barely, and I lurched backward, almost falling on my butt. The tongue was slithering on the ground, searching for something to grab onto, as I scooted backward. Wen banged an antler against a tree, trying to draw its attention. A second tongue lashed out in his direction, snaring one of his hands. Pulsating and twisting, it tried wrapping itself around his arm. He bit clean through the writhing flesh, and foul-smelling dark green blood spurted out. The creature cried out in pain, sucking both tongues back into its mouth.
It looked angry, and I didn’t want to stick around for its next party trick. “Not a ghost! Run!”
We pelted through the trees like there was a wildfire behind us.
I’m not sure how long we ran, but the light didn’t follow us. When I was sure it was far out of sight, I slowed to a stop.
Wen spat several times and wiped a glob of green blood off his lips. “Pah! That was horrible.”
“Yeah? Well, you brought a souvenir.” I pointed to his arm.
He snatched the piece of the creature’s tongue that was still attached to this skin and pulled. “Ow!”
It finally came loose, leaving behind a bloody wound where it had attached itself, leech style. He tried to throw it away, but it stuck to his hand. I got a stick and prodded the viscid lump onto the ground. It wriggled wildly, and I covered it with leaves to keep it from sticking to anything else.
“Well, that was fun. Glad nobody else was around to see that debacle.”
He shook his head and little bits of bark and a few leaves rained down. “How was I supposed to know that was going to happen? Do you think they’d have a tour out here if they knew there really were monsters in the woods?”
I shrugged. “Any idea what that was?”
“No. I’ve seen the lights before, but I’ve never gone close.” He toyed absently with some of the hair on his cheek. “I have no idea where we are.”
His stomach growled in an alarming way.
“Can you climb one of those trees, Wen? If we can find the road, we should have some idea which way to go.”
He scampered up a tall pine freakishly fast. Bark nuggets fell in his wake, and the wind turned them into chunky shrapnel. Then silence.
I was just about to call out to him, when he said, “I see them! I can see the lights of the truck moving down one of the old logging roads. I see the fire, too.”
Wen leapt off the tree from a much higher spot than I would have, and he landed with only the slightest rustle of leaves. Perhaps it was because he was so thin. I probably had at least one hundred pounds on him.
He jogged off, in almost the opposite direction we’d been heading. I followed. He hadn’t set a fast pace, and I could run for miles, anyway. In this cool weather, it was a nice little jog.
Over the breeze and crunching of dead leaves, I heard a noise and raised my hand. We stopped. “Shhh! I hear people talking.”
I veered left, toward the sound. Wen followed. He paused to raise his face to the gloomy tree canopy and sniffed the air like a dog. “You’re right. I can smell the fire now. And food.”
“You and food.”
“Looks like they’re just getting back from the haunted hayride – people are getting out of the trailer. Dinner time!”
We watched for a few minutes as pre-skewered hotdogs and marshmallows were handed out. There was a good crowd of people, maybe fifty.
Wen picked a cobweb-shrouded leaf out of my fur and dipped his antlers toward the campsite. “C’mon, Dogman. Let’s eat!”
I smiled at my Wendigo friend, although my bared fangs usually made it look more like a snarl. “After you.”
& & & & & & &
The Wendigo is a creature from the northeastern forests. The Algonquian people recognized him as the spirit of desolate places, the personification of the famine of winter. His insatiable hunger for human flesh makes him a fearsome enemy who can eat people, or possess their bodies and use them to commit atrocities. He is often depicted as having a human body with antlers on its head, or a deer’s head and antlers. There is a psychiatric condition known as Wendigo Psychosis – the overwhelming desire to eat other humans. In 1878, a Cree man named Swift Runner suffered from this when he murdered and ate his entire family over the winter.
Dogman sightings are most frequently reported in the Midwest, especially Wisconsin and Michigan, although they have been described on every continent except Antarctica. In 400 B.C., the Greek physician Ctesias wrote about tribes of Cynocephali, or dog-headed men. Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo both reported encounters with them, and Saint Christopher, patron of travelers, has the head of a dog in some early depictions. Most dogmen seem to prefer living in rural areas and forests, but they have been sighted in large cities. The dogman is described as having a hairy, bipedal body with the head of a dog or wolf. It may or may not be a werewolf, but it is definitely not a Big Foot. Linda Godfrey has collected accounts of numerous dogman sightings in her book, The Beast of Bray Road.
The Will-O-The-Wisp, or ghost lights, has been encountered by people outside at night for at least as long as folklore has existed. Explanations range from trickster faeries leading travelers astray, to restless ghosts, to swamp gas (and many things in between). Since they have a habit of disappearing when people try to get close, no one has ever really seen what is behind the light. The Marfa Lights and the Bragg Road Ghost Lights are two Texas examples of this phenomenon.