The sun was dipping below the Catskill Mountains, the fall air was cold, and Cornelius Ostrum was grumpy. As the elderly man left Frink’s Tavern and headed in the direction of the village square, he muttered angrily to himself, “The next time Abraham Fitch agrees with me will be the first time! That stubborn old mule has lost almost as much reasoning as he has hair!”
Calling Abraham old, however, did no favors to Cornelius as he was his senior by a year. When they were children, Cornelius always held his advanced age over the younger Abraham; over time, however, things worked more in the opposite.
By the time he made it as far as the Vanderpoel home, the warmth of the tavern faded and Cornelius was starting to feel quite cold. Despite his uncomfortableness at the fall evening, and the nightly disagreement with his long-time friend over a drink or two, his poor disposition went deeper. As he walked through the heart of Kinderhook, a quaint village in the Hudson Valley region of upstate New York, he reminisced about his younger days and how the chill of an early November night would hardly have even been noticed. I sure notice it now. Despite his heavy wool coat, he just couldn’t seem to keep the cold from penetrating to his very bones. It made his nose run, his muscles stiff, and his joints ache. As he had done nearly every day for the last two years, he cursed his old age.
The light was fading fast and Cornelius would have to hurry in order to be home before it was completely dark. Even with the half moon sneaking through the clouds to help guide the way, his eyes were just not what they used to be. “Another nuisance of getting old,” he muttered out loud. Gritting his teeth, he wiped his nose with a handkerchief and picked up the pace.
As he reached the cross roads of Kinderhook Square, he noticed that only a few people were about. The post office was closed, as was the store, but a few of the businesses that lined the intersection still had lamp light in their windows – although they would be closing up soon. Cornelius shook his head when he saw that Milton Gardner’s hat shop was still lit up. Must be an important hat, he mumbled to himself.
“Good evening, Mr. Ostrum,” said a young man, the Sharp’s boy, William, out walking with his little sister.
Cornelius nodded silently and kept his pace.
As he turned onto Albany Avenue, his breath fogging weakly around him, his thoughts turned to the real reason he was grumpy. Harriet. It had been two years since his wife had passed and not a day went by that he didn’t miss her. Going home to that empty house had never become normal, had never become a part of his life that he accepted. He knew that he would miss Harriet until the day he died.
A gust of earthy wind rushed past him, pushing leaves along the dirt road. Brrr, he was so cold. And with that sensation, a further wave of sorrow filled him; the idea of another winter alone was almost too much to bear.
A ways down Albany Avenue, not quite to the cemetery, Cornelius’ melancholy thoughts were interrupted by a sudden noise somewhere nearby. He paused and looked around him but did not see anyone.
Was there a voice? Probably just the wind.
“Hearing things! That’s just what I need,” he complained to himself and was about to resume walking when another noise reached him. It sounded like a vigorous rustling of leaves that was more than the wind could explain. Whatever it was, it was definitely real and definitely not far away. Looking into the woods that bordered the road, which was the best guess his old ears could give him as to the direction of the sound, he strained to see what was making the disturbance.
Probably just a couple of squirrels fighting or playing, he thought to himself hopefully, but did not actually believe it. The next noise that reached him was a similar sound of leaves but was accompanied by a strange wailing sound. No squirrel did that.
Cornelius was not a fearful man, had never backed down from a fight, had even fought in the war for independence, but in that moment he felt a chill run down his spine unlike anything he had ever experienced. He couldn’t explain it, but he felt like something wicked was lurking nearby. Rooted to his spot, his eyes searched desperately through the woods in the failing light.
Nothing stood out…wait, there was something. What he saw wasn’t much more than a shadow, but it didn’t belong. A stranger to the town would have probably thought it a large rock or a tree stump, but Cornelius had walked that road for years and practically knew every pebble. No, something was not right about what he was seeing.
When the shadow moved, every muscle in Cornelius’ body refused to work. He wanted to run, to scream, to fall to the ground – anything – but he couldn’t; couldn’t even utter a sound. Nor could he shake the thought that he was viewing something evil. He wanted the moment to end, but it stretched on unmercifully.
The shadow stood upright and appeared to be looking at something just in front of it. Cornelius held his breath, praying that whatever he was seeing wouldn’t see him.
After a moment, the shadow took a few steps back from its position in the darkness and paused in a sliver of moonlight that filtered through an opening in the trees. There still wasn’t enough illumination to make out many details, but what Cornelius could see nearly brought tears to his eyes from the new rush of fear that pulsed through him. It was a creature that looked to be covered in leaves and twigs. It wasn’t large, but it seemed to exude cruelty and malice. So shocked was Cornelius by the frightful vision before him that he involuntarily let out a gasp.
To his horror, the sound drew the attention of the shadow creature and it turned towards him. It was too dark to make out a face, but just knowing that he was in its sight, made his knees quake and nearly give out.
They stared at each other, not moving, for several terrible seconds. With each passing moment, memories of dark legends crept through Cornelius’ mind and he grew more certain that he was about to die.
Then, to his shock and immeasurable relief, the shadow turned away and headed deeper into the forest until it was lost to the darkness of the woods.
For several more seconds, Cornelius stood paralyzed by what he had just experienced. His next movement was to drop to his knees and regain his breath. When he finally had the fortitude to stand again, he was still shaking and more frightened by what he had seen than at any moment in his life. Looking around the street, there was still no one about; no one had witnessed what he had.
Briefly, he gave consideration to trying to follow the leafy shadow creature, but quickly dismissed the idea. Roaming the woods alone, at night, was not a good idea – even if he wasn’t an old man. Besides, what would he do if he found it? He was unarmed and, frankly, terrified.
With thoughts of pursuit behind him, he wondered what he should do next. Continue home? That was out of the question as he felt that he had to tell someone. Go back to the tavern? Find a constable? They’d probably think me crazy. He had nearly settled on heading back to the tavern when another question would not let him proceed. What was that thing staring at?
Looking back to the spot where he first saw the creature, it was hard to make anything out. It was even darker than before, and yet, he couldn’t be sure that there wasn’t still another shadow. Could there be a second one?
With all the courage he had, Cornelius called out with a shaky voice, “Hey!” into the dark woods.
Again, “Hey!” a little louder and with a touch more confidence.
If something was still there, it wasn’t moving. At that point he started to wonder if he had imagined the whole thing. But no, he refused to believe that. Sure, he was getting older and his faculties weren’t as good as they once were, but there was no way that he had hallucinated that…creature.
With a little boldness – partially motivated by wanting to prove himself sane – Cornelius stepped into the woods. Although only a few feet from the road he immediately felt colder, but was fairly certain that, this time, it had little to do with the weather.
After a few more steps, he paused and listened. What if it came back? There was no sound except for the light wind among the mostly barren branches – and his own rapid heartbeat.
About halfway to the spot where the creature was first spotted, Cornelius could make out a definite shadow of something that shouldn’t have been there. It was too dark to tell exactly what it was, but something was far worse than nothing.
With his shaking hand leaning against a tree to steady himself, Cornelius took a breath to try and calm his nerves and then called out, “Hello!” to see if the shadow would respond. There was still no movement. Maybe it was just a downed branch.
His heart continued to beat quickly while his limbs seemed to fight his forward movement. Pressing onward, he covered another ten yards and slowly began to realize what it was that made up the shadow that didn’t belong. Rushing over, he dropped to his knees and confirmed that there was a man lying on the ground.
“Hey, wake up,” he said while shaking the shoulder of the man, hoping that his initial assumption was not true.
From the shaking, the man’s face turned towards Cornelius and he saw two things. One, the person lying on the forest floor was Markus Groet. Two, the lifeless eyes confirmed that he was dead.
The first shock of the night had not remotely been overcome when that next shock hit Cornelius. Still on his knees, he felt lightheaded and very nearly passed out. It was only by reminding himself to breathe that he remained conscious.
That…creature…had killed Markus Groet! was the only conclusion that he could come to. It was impossible, but he had seen it happen with his own eyes. Again, his memories of old and evil folklore came to his mind. There were numerous tales of wicked creatures in the woods that could do all sorts of harm. Weren’t they just stories to scare children?
Examining the body a little closer, Cornelius nearly fell over backward when he looked at the poor man’s stomach. It was a mess of blood and leaves.
More legends, horrific tales, of vengeful and cruel beings swam through his consciousness. He shook his head in disbelief.
“It cannot be,” he said aloud to himself. “It just can’t.”
And yet, after what he had witnessed, and what he was then seeing, what else could he conclude?
As impossible as it was, she was real!