I have always loved the forest. I grew up on a farm as a country-boy in the rural South, and there wasn’t an inch of wooded areas where I lived that I hadn’t explored.
Just about every young boy had a .22 caliber rifle and could shoot the hair off a flea’s ass by the age of thirteen. Hunting season never mattered to anyone. Nothing was safe—birds, squirrels, possums, raccoons. And in the country, you ate what you hunted…well, maybe not the birds and the varmints but the squirrels made a tasty stew. I had a rifle, too, but I hardly ever took it off the wooden rack I’d made for it in shop class. I loved being in the woods and didn’t feel the need to hunt.
It was the smell of the forest that attracted me most —aromas of pine, cedar, and dried grass, or the musty odor of wet fallen leaves and earth after a rain. I learned to recognize the pathways and trails made by deer through impenetrable thickets. Most people tromped through the forest like soldiers on a mission, mindless and clueless of the order of things—momentary intruders invading nature’s rhythm.
To me, the forest was a cathedral. The tall trunks of old-growth trees that shot straight up to the sky served as columns. If God lived in his grand churches, I bet the forest was where he’d come to relax.
Often, I’d find a clearing where the sun peeked down through the canopy, and I’d find a fallen tree on which to sit. If I stayed perfectly still and relaxed, the forest would come to life. And the tall pines would whisper to me, soothing me, as a reward for my patience. I attended these places of worship for 30 years, and I was never once disappointed in their sermons.
It was at the end of October and I’d driven to a small town in the mountains of West Virginia on my way to visit my brother in Ohio. It was a stunning time of year when the peaks and valleys were carpeted with fiery reds, purples, and violets. There was a nip in the air that when breathed in, tasted clean and fresh with traces of Mountain Laurel.
The town of Smithville was more of a hamlet where two twisty, narrow roads crossed. It consisted of a general store, a garage, and a small church with a tall steeple that was out of proportion to the rest of the building. It was as if the worshipers had erected the steeple as a monument to the glory of God, and the tiny building, the church part of it, looked like it was stuck on as an afterthought. It was the only thing odd about the town.
The place was chocked with cars with out-of-state tags parked in every conceivable space. Tourists came from the cities in the lower altitudes to view the stunning display of forest colors. Among the Lexus sedans and SUVs, the Range Rovers and convertibles, were the more basic modes of transportation, old worn-looking Ford and Chevy trucks. Their owners were the people who lived in the area’s valleys and hollows for generations. One resident had parked his vehicle behind some out-of-towners and was nowhere to be seen. The driver and family of the blocked-in car, a huge Ford Expedition, milled around, and asked other locals where the perpetrator might be. No one seemed to know.
Inside the general store the scene was pandemonium. People poked through the merchandise, people ogled at the tall walls filled with shelves of everything from canned goods, leather boots, to stacks of overalls, and a long snake of them wound through the store to pay at the register. In the middle sat a giant, ancient, pot-bellied stove and firewood, stacked neatly in a pile beside it. Surrounding that were rockers and an old wooden domino table with four chairs. Every rocker and chair were occupied by a local.
The overcrowded place gave me the heebie-jeebies, but before I left, I asked one old man who’d obviously grown up in the area the location of a secluded part of the forest I could explore in an afternoon. He didn’t answer at first. I thought he might have been deaf, but his eyes met mine in a hard stare, then softened.
“I reckon you’re not like the rest of these yahoos. For the afternoon? Hmmm—the old Campbell place is as good as any. Ain’t nobody there. The house burned down some years back and took the whole family with it.”
“Great. So, no one will think I’m trespassing if I take a hike through the woods then?”
“They was a queer lot, them Campbells, but they all went up with the house when it burned. There ain’t a one of ‘em left to bother you.”
The old man glanced around at his companions in the rockers and smiled. They all nodded and grinned back. I got the impression that he was getting a consensus of approval to let a stranger roam a neighbor’s wood.
He gave me detailed directions to the Campbell place. I drove up a rutted track and stopped at the ruins of a burned house with a solitary stone chimney that leaned over the charred remains like a preacher praising the dead at a funeral.
I killed the motor, opened the door, and reached for my hiking shoes. The air smelled cleaner here, then the breeze changed direction. My nostrils were filled with the sour odor of charred wood as if the house had recently burned. The charred timbers had fallen, smoldered and settled years ago from the look of them. The odor was stronger than it should have been, but I dismissed it. I couldn’t wait to absorb my experience of the West Virginia forest in the middle of the Appalachian Mountain range.
I followed the animal paths that wove through the brush. They shifted a few feet up or down in elevation but pretty much stayed level. I struck out toward a hollow, careful to keep my bearings and waypoints recorded as a back-up in my GPS.
I was perhaps two miles from my car when I realized something stood out. Or rather I stood out, standing at the edge of a clearing in a patch of what looked like Baby’s Breath. It grew in bunches where little white blooms exploded from the tops of long stems. Up ahead there was the remainder of a wooden box that lay half-buried in the ground, the top half, rotted from the weather. On closer inspection, it contained something wrapped in a heavy cloth like a blanket that had faded years ago. I brushed away leaves accumulated from countless seasons and grazed the blanket with my hand. The material disintegrated into powder and revealed the lifeless form of a human baby. I stepped back, surprised and appalled.
The forehead was long and bulbus, and the eye sockets and face were pushed down toward the chin—most likely from being left to the mercy of the elements than from blunt force trauma. The coloring of the skin stretched across the skull was a deep caramel-color. In spite of my revulsion, I reached down to touch the head.
“You leave that baby be.”
The rough, hoarse sound of a voice startled me. I whipped around; my heart rate shot up like a geyser. Not ten feet away stood a man. No, not a man—a dead, horribly burned man. His skin and fingers had melted away and what was left, crackled when he moved. Bits and pieces of charred flesh fell from him. He was featureless, no nose, hair, or eyes. His lips were partially consumed as well, leaving one side of his cheek open that exposed stained molars. His entire body was blackened by fire like burn victims in car crashes.
In terror, I thrashed around in the thigh-high Baby’s Breath trying get away, but the tall, spindly stalks and the small white blossoms tangled together and entrapped my legs. Breaking free was futile. I stopped struggling and took a few deep breaths. I needed to calm down. And only then did it register what he’d said. “You leave that baby be.” He stood there, facing me. Waiting.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb anything.”
The man kept silent. I had the creepy feeling it didn’t matter what I said. And if I could somehow force my way through and out of the patch, he’d know it and I didn’t want to think about what would happen next. More burned people appeared in the shadows, just outside the clearing, standing sentinel-like as if guarding the baby. None had facial features that set them apart, although one had breasts, or what appeared to be melted lumps of flesh on its chest. The man spoke again.
“It was that bastard, Tobias Smith. He set the fire that burnt me up, along with my wife and two young’uns. He will suffer the torments of Hell just as we did.”
As spooked as I was, I realized that it wasn’t me they were after. This Tobias Smith character murdered the whole family for some reason, but something was off. The poor creature in the box. Who was that?
“What about the baby…what was his name— this baby, here?”
Another period of silence passed. Then he answered.
“The fire done run us all upstairs. We was trapped. Mama wrapped little Samuel in a blanket and pitched him out the window. That bastard Tobias found Samuel and brought him here figuring the varmints ‘n vermin’ll have their way.”
So, that was it. They couldn’t leave and go wherever souls go after death. Their spirits stayed to protect the baby. And they did just that, even after it perished from neglect. What torture to be a spirit and to watch a loved one die and not able to do anything. Then, one day I showed up.
“I’m so sorry that happened.” I looked down at the wizened creature in the box. “And I’m sorry I came and disturbed your little Samuel. Please forgive me.”
I looked up and the burned Campbell family was gone. I glanced down at the baby, still there, and looked up again. The burned family, still gone.
I felt free. Relief spread though me. And I felt free to move. I took a step through the Baby’s Breath. Easy. It was no longer a tangled mass. I made my way out of the clearing and headed back to my car. I repeated the sequence of events over in my mind. Other than being scared out of my mind, the spirits never threatened to harm me. They’d been horribly wronged and wanted justice. Or maybe just closure. By the time I reached the car, I knew what I had to do.
I drove back to the general store and spotted the old gentleman I’d spoken to before. His long, ungroomed eyebrows shot up in surprise. I squatted down on one leg, level with the old man in his rocking chair. I said nothing but I cracked a grin.
“Didn’t count on seeing you this soon, son. Did you find the Campbell place?”
“Sure did. I had quite the commune with nature.”
The old man nodded and rocked back. He reached down and picked up an old stained can that once contained spit pea soup and spit tobacco juice in it.
“Tell me, do you know a man named Tobias…Tobias Smith?”
The old man stopped rocking and starred at me hard. The kind of glare that said I’d asked the wrong question. All the old men around the pot-bellied stove stopped rocking too. It was as if everyone in the store disappeared and the old gentlemen around the stove and I were the only ones in the place.
“How did you come by that name, son?”
“Someone mentioned it. Know him?”
The old man’s gaze intensified, his eyes tightened into a squint, probing for a clue. “I know him. Why you askin?” I sensed all the old men catching every word, staring at me, watching for any clues.
“Sounds like someone I’d like to meet, that’s all. Is he around?”
The old man cut his eyes to the other old men. Their expressions grim.
“Don’t rightly know he’d want to meet you. He’s a private person. Don’t cotton to strangers much.”
“I just want to say hi to him. And pass along some information.”
“What kind of information?”
“Private information. The kind he’d be upset not to hear. I’d like to tell you, but it’s for him only.”
The old man searched the faces of his companions again. One of them, a big man with long greasy hair wearing worn overalls, leaned close to the stove and spit. It sizzled until it evaporated.
It must have been the signal the old man was looking for. He turned back to me.
“Tobias is a powerful man around these parts. And he don’t like strangers, like I said.” Another old man piped up, “Hell, he don’t like much of nobody coming round, stirring things up.”
“But suit yourself. If you’re so all fired up to meet him, go ahead. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” The old man gave me directions to Tobias Smith’s house.
“Mind the dogs.”
Once again, I drove down narrow, twisty roads until I came to a driveway with a big hand-painted sign nailed to a post that read, PRIVATE. KEEP OUT. I turned in.
The Smith manse was a huge Victorian affair set in the middle of a front yard of barren soil. Not a blade of grass grew within the border of old railroad ties. The dark, weathered wood siding had never seen a lick of paint. As soon as I opened the car door, two Dobermans appeared from under the house and stood, side-by-side at the ready, growling. No one came to the door.
I was startled by a tapping noise. I looked to my right out the driver-side window, down the long barrel of a shot gun. The man holding it was wearing a gold Rolex on his wrist and a threadbare, worn out robe over a stained wifebeater tee shirt. He looked as if he had not seen a bathtub in a week. He nodded for me to roll down my window. It got halfway down before he bellowed, “Cain’t you read the sign?”
“I’m sorry. My name is—”
“I know who you are. What do you want? Make it quick.”
I wasn’t eager to relay anything to do with the Campbells to a man pointing a shotgun at my head.
“Would you mind pointing that shotgun somewhere else?”
“I’ll point it where I damn well please. This is my property and you’re trespassing. I could blow your head clean off and be well within my rights. Now spit out what you got to tell me.”
To emphasize the moment both dogs growled, no doubt hoping their master would provide fresh raw meat in their bowls tonight. Reluctantly, I decided to tell my story. I’d come this far, and I doubt I could say, ‘never mind, I’ll just back on out and be on my merry way.’
“I went to the Campbell place to hike the woods. I like hiking and I like the woods. I ran into some folks you might know.”
Smith’s face darkened and he gripped the shotgun tighter.
“Went by the last name of Campbell.”
He blinked, shocked to hear it.
“You a goddamn liar. There ain’t no more Campbells.”
“He didn’t seem to think so.”
“What’s his name, then?”
I noticed his hands trembling. That caused the shotgun to tremble. Not a good omen.
“Sam,” I said. “Short for Samuel. He wanted me to pass along a message— that he wanted to meet up with you at the old Campbell place. That’s all.”
Smith’s face screwed up like a twisted rag with all the water wrung out of it. I closed my eyes and waited for the momentary blast I was sure to come next.
It never came. I opened my eyes to find no one there. Smith and his shotgun had disappeared. I looked around. Even the Dobermans were gone. I needed no further instructions; I started the car, backed around, and shot out past the PRIVATE. KEEP OUT. sign barely able to keep the car on the road back to town.
I stopped at the general store but saw no reason to go back in. I filled the tank with gas and left Smithville hoping to make the Ohio state line by nightfall. I never was happier to leave a place as I watched the general store shrink in the rearview mirror. At least I had a tall-ass tale to entertain my brother and his family.
I’d spent a week visiting my brother. He and his wife were amazed to hear of my adventure on my stop in West Virginia. The first night, after telling the story and drinking several beers, his wife retired for the night while we caught up with each other’s lives.
My brother paused in thought for a moment, then asked, “Wouldn’t you like to know if that Smith guy ever went back to the Campbell’s place?”
“Naaah, I get creeped out every time I think about it.”
The truth was, it was all I could think about the entire visit. So, after fond farewells, I headed for home, via a cautious detour to Smithville. The closer I got to the odd little town, the more nervous I became, but I had to know more. Obviously, my visit to Tobias Smith made some impression. I wondered why he’d saw fit to murder the Campbells and burn down their house. Then again, going back to a place after pissing off the most powerful guy in town wasn’t the smartest decision I’d ever made, but still, I had to know.
I arrived around 3 in the afternoon. The peak of the leaf season had passed, only a few out-of-town cars were parked in town. The place looked halfway normal, except for the phallus-like steeple-on-steroids. I had my choice of parking spaces in front of the general store; I pulled into one and got out. There were the same old Ford and Chevy trucks as before but there were more parking spaces than vehicles. The bell over the door jingled as I entered. The last time I came through I hadn’t heard it ring for the noise of the crowd. The store, now empty of humanity, was one long open room from front to back and the shelves half-empty from being shopped, but the pot-bellied stove, the wood pile, and the domino table remained as did the four chairs and the rocking chairs. All were occupied by the same old men. The low murmur of the men playing dominos stopped, the players all turned and starred at me. The rockers stopped.
The old man who’d talked with me before didn’t rise from his rocker, nor did he acknowledge my presence. He was expecting me.
“Boy, you shouldn’t a come back. You should-a kept on going in whatever direction you was headed. But here you are. And here you’ll stay.”
Someone behind me locked the door I’d entered and pulled down the window shades. I’d screwed up big time.
“What is going on here? I’m calling the police.”
I went straight for my back pocket, nothing there. I’d left my cell phone in the car. The old man observed my dilemma and grinned wolfishly.
“We handle our own affairs here in our little town. We see no reason to involve outsiders. Of course, there’s the tourists. They come every year, every season. They come and come and every year they take a little of us back to wherever they come from. Oh, we like their money; make no mistake. But some take more than others—like you!”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Liar! What have you done with Tobias Smith?”
“We ain’t seen hide nor hair of him since you left town. You best come clean now, boy. It’ll be easier on you if you do.”
“What? I went to his house and never got out of the car. His Doberman’s made sure of that. Next thing I know, he sneaks up on me and points a shotgun at me. I gave him my message and he disappeared. I got the hell out of there, gassed up my car, and left town. That’s the God’s honest truth.”
The old man scowled.
“Bullshit. You’re hiding something. What’d you tell him?”
“None of your business.”
The old man’s scowl deepened for a moment, then he rocked back and picked up his old split-pea can and spit into it slowly.
“Tain’t my business? I recon you’ll beg to tell me after we cut off your hand. Tell me now or later. Makes no difference to me, but you will want to make it my business.”
I thought about that. I was defenseless and trapped. The old man knew it, I knew it, and so did everyone else.
“I told Tobias I’d met someone at the old Campbell place. Samuel Campbell—who wanted to meet up with him at the ruins of the old home place.”
“Samuel Campbell? There ain’t no Samuel Campbell ‘round here. You best not lie to me, boy.”
“It’s the truth. I thought he was going to shoot me. I closed my eyes. When he didn’t, I opened them, and he was gone. That’s when I got the hell out of there.”
The old man rocked back again and scanned the faces of his companions. One guy nodded in the direction of the Campbell place. The old man turned back to me.
“Looks like we’re gonna take us a little trip.”
Ten people loaded into an array of motley-looking off-road vehicles. They stuffed me between the old man and “a big’un,” a corn-fed boy who took up most of the bench seat in the ’83 Chevy 1500 truck he drove. He was a kid, maybe fifteen or sixteen, with a face full of acne and had a sparce growth of thick black curly whiskers. He needed a bath. The odor was more than I could take.
“Hey, could you crack a window. It’s a little close.”
No response from anyone.
We passed the church with the huge steeple.
I asked the old man. “What’s with the steeple?”
The old man glanced at me, then stretched his neck to take the tall steeple in.
‘What about it?” Obviously, he thought it was normal.
“It’s so…I don’t know…big. Bigger and out of proportion of the church itself.”
“Tobias gave the town the money for it.”
“Twenty-years ago, I ‘spect. Said he wanted it tall enough so the Lord would take note.”
“Isn’t that about when the Campbell’s house burned?”
“Maybe. Why do you ask?”
“Could it be atonement for killing the Campbells.”
The old man looked at me like I’d grown two heads.
“Atonement? I ain’t never heard nothin about Tobias killing nobody. I mean, sure, he wanted to buy ‘em out. They got a sweet parcel of land back in that hollow, but Tobias wouldn’t kill fer it.”
I told the old man my story about finding the baby. He laughed. Said it was the biggest bunch of horseshit he’d ever heard.
“Okay, then I’ll show you the baby’s corpse. Maybe you’ll believe me then.”
We pulled up next to a late model Cadillac Deville parked next to the jumbled burned remains of the Campbell house.
“That’s Tobias’s car,” said the old man.
Everyone got out. They started to form a search party to look for Smith, but I had a feeling where they’d find him.
“I think I know where he is.” I said aloud.
One of the old man’s companions from the circle of rockers popped up and said, “Where you left his body, you mean?” I didn’t answer.
“Then lead on. I don’t like seeing Tobias’s car abandoned. Sooner we find him, the sooner we’ll deal with you.”
I didn’t like the sound of that, but I headed in the direction I’d chosen for my previous hike. I wondered if the old man would make it.
For the first time in my life the woods seemed foreign. The trees stood mute and barren. The harsh crush of human footfalls in the carpet of dried and lifeless leaves echoed off the wide trunks of surrounding oak, poplar, and tulip trees. A brisk breeze cut through the bare forest to make the moderate cool temperature even colder.
I saw the clearing up ahead, silhouetted by trees, but it looked different. I soon saw why.
The entire area of Baby’s Breath was dead. The small white blossoms were brown and dry, and some had fallen leaving only the lifeless stalks protruding toward the gray, overcast sky. The baby was gone. It its place lay a blackened fire-ravaged body. It lay on its back, features unrecognizable and rendered into crisp charred masses. One ravaged arm, twisted and contorted, lay close to the body. The other, outstretched to the sky as if imploring the Almighty, or a Campbell for forgiveness. A gold Rolex was half embedded in the surrounding flesh; the crystal shattered from the heat. Everyone surrounded the body and stood in silence like a funeral service. The old man was silent, but when he saw the gold Rolex, he staggered in recognition. He knew.
The old man finally looked up and his eyes seared into mine, then they refocused, and his mouth gaped. He looked past me. I turned and saw another burned figure just outside the tree line, and another, and another. All the Campbells were there. The mother stood holding her tiny baby, Samuel. His tattered blanket flapped in the cold breeze. Then they were gone.
Later, after the convoy of trucks returned to Smithville, the old man turned to me and said, “Git out of here, boy. Leave and never come back.” I didn’t hesitate.
Gordon Smith grew up in rural Mississippi, immersed in its rich tradition of oral storytelling. Facts were never the point of a good story and embellishment was welcome and embraced. Gordon employed his early storytelling talents in his career as an advertising Senior Art Director, spinning short tales into award-winning television commercials. Now, a full-time writer, he returns to his native heritage to conjure stories of mystery and the supernatural. Baby’s Breath is only one of many strange and enticing stories Gordon reveals from the hidden side of human nature.