Sunday, October 25, 2015
About a week before Halloween, I took my dog for a walk on the pathway through the corporate woods. It was an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon, a bit damp but sunny.
I parked my car in the cul-de-sac next to the city park. The trail is asphalt, about ten feet wide, and it runs through the park and past the children’s playground to the edge of the forest. The woods are owned by the slaughterhouse, a shadowy district of old trees and swampy lagoons behind the packing plant. Red no-trespassing and no-hunting signs mark the course of the paved trail through the woods. Most of the forest is wet, low land adjacent to a murky river that meanders through the oak and maple trees. The river floods often and it has undercut its banks toppling trees into the water or dropping them like barricades along the low, clay ramparts overlooking the stream. The woods are trenched with parenthesis-shaped hollows that were once bends in the river and those low places are filled with black water on which fallen leaves and sodden twigs float. Beyond barricades of storm-dropped trees, a little creek slips through a culvert that is under the trail to splash over the gravel lining the river-bed. Beyond the stagnant lagoons, there are meadows tufted with marsh-grass, the home of red-winged blackbirds and great venomous-looking dragonflies, more gloomy forest overgrown with thorny brush enclosing the clearings. Sometimes, a solitary walker will see deer crossing the trail where it arches upward, humped over a culvert with a shovel-shaped spillway connecting two sides of a dark pond. After a mile or so, the trail emerges from the woods where there is a railroad crossing and, then, a county highway and, across the road, another large city park with softball fields and bleachers and even lights for night-time tournaments.
On this autumn afternoon, I walked along the paved path through the park. Three boys were playing in the sand by the swingsets. Their bicycles were lying on their sides, half-extended kickstands gouging the moist grass. On the other side of the trail, the backyards of small houses extended ambiguously into the park, boundary-lines established by places where the leaves had been raked or the grass recently mown or the length of chain leashing dogs that pranced up and down to bark at passers-by. The little boys briefly admired my dog, but, then, returned to their excavations in the sand. The sun came from slits in the clouds and brightened my way for a few moments before retreating into the shadows again.
A small dog escaped from a nearby house, darting off the deck and running across the trail. The dog was tiny and ran with a peculiar hopping gait like a rabbit and it made a beeline for the river, a couple hundred feet away, banks shaggy with tall thistles and weed. The dog’s owner shouted the name of the animal, but the little creature ignored him and vanished in the tall grass next to the stream. I continued on my way up the hill and past the parking lot behind the research and development buildings annexed to the slaughterhouse. Then, we walked down the slope, over the culvert bisecting the first lagoon and into the shadows of the woods.
I had last walked on this trail in August and, then, the entire path was dismal with mosquitos. But this afternoon, the air had the tang of late October and it was cool and blowing leaves whisked across the trail as we walked. I saw no one coming toward me, and no one following either. Enough leaves had fallen to strip the trees so that I could see deep into the woods, one vista opening into another and all clearings edged with grim-looking fallen trees and the dark, hulking mounds of roots cast up by those trees and little slivers of dead water motionless under grey skies.
My dog was frightened by something following us. Every two or three steps, she loitered behind me and, then, twisted sideways to look over her shoulder. I tugged on her leash and we went forward, but, then, the dog stopped again, ears flattened against her skull, and staring with intense attention at something that I could not see. "Come along, Frieda," I said to my dog. She reluctantly walked another four or five steps, then, made a soft whining noise, and turned back to look at the trail behind her. The asphalt was covered with leaves and some of them skittered across the tar, blown by a fragmentary and indefinite wind. The dog glared behind us as if she were watching someone or something approaching. But I saw nothing, merely the curve of the leaf-strewn trail arcing through the trees brooding overhead.
I felt a dim sort of fear. What was bothering the dog? I tugged sharply at her leash and dragged her forward, and, yet, she still paused and pulled against her chain, spinning around to look down the trail behind us. We walked uncertainly for a hundred yards. Then, the dog sat down on the trail and would not move. The fur on her back bristled. She whimpered for an instant, barked suddenly, a sound that I didn’t expect and that startled me so that I shouted at her and angrily dragged her forward. Whatever had frightened the dog was gone. She looked up at me with sad eyes, then, wagged her tail, and we went unimpeded to the end of the path, stopping at the place where the asphalt crossed the long, empty right-of-way of the railroad tracks.
When we turned to retrace our steps, I felt vaguely uneasy. We would now be walking directly into the face of the thing that had followed us. But the dog showed no signs of uneasiness and we passed by the sandy curve in the river and, then, through the wet bottom lands full of the brown filigree of dead ferns and, at last, crossed the culvert-split dike over the lagoon to emerge at the place where the trail skirted the R & D parking lot.
In the city park, a woman with a haggard and worried face approached me. She came from one of the backyards of the houses on the edge of the parks. The swingsets and slides in the playground were deserted and the boys’ bicycles nowhere to be seen. The woman approached me briskly and seemed to be upset.
"Did you see that guy in the woods?" the woman asked.
One of the boys that I had seen earlier emerged from behind a fence. I could see that his face was swollen a little and his eyes red because he had been crying. The boy hurried forward to stand behind the woman.
"There was a very tall man here," the woman said. "He was dressed all in black. He scared the kids."
The boy said: "It was a tall man."
"I didn’t see him," I said.
My dog wagged her tail anxiously.
"The guy scared the kids," the woman said. "It was right after you walked by. He followed you up the hill and into the woods. He was just behind you. That’s what the boys said."
"I didn’t see him," I said again.
"The boys said that he approached them and was making strange noises and, then, they said that he was dressed up for Halloween, he was dressed up for trick or treating or something because he was wearing a mask."
"I don’t know if it was a mask," the boy said.
"It must have been a mask," the woman replied. "They said that there was something awful about the way he looked. Something wrong with his face."
"He had something wrong with his face," the boy said.
"It must have been a mask," his mother repeated. "I was going to call the police."
I shook my head. "I didn’t see anyone," I said. "I didn’t see anyone at all."