If Mr. Groet had really been killed, then William did not find a joke about a monster to be at all funny. Still, with all the sudden activity in the village, something had happened. Deciding to give his fellow student the benefit of the doubt, he asked, “What do you mean, a monster? Like a bear?”
Frederick shook his head. “No, not a bear. According to what I’ve been hearing, it was some kind of shadow creature. Look, just follow me, Mr. Ostrum saw the whole thing and is telling his story at Frink’s.” Without waiting to see if the invitation was accepted, Frederick hurried off in the direction of the tavern.
“I’m scared,” cried Kimber, tears threatening her eyes. Although he didn’t want to admit it, William was too. Monster or not, something, or someone, had evidently killed Mr. Groet. It was so surprising, so unexpected, that it just didn’t feel real. Could he really be dead?
Trying to be reassuring, William picked up his sister – who normally thought herself too old for that – and told her, “I promise that I won’t let anything happen to you.”
She hid her face in his shoulder and put her arms tightly around his neck.
Looking at Marie, he saw confusion and fright – which very much mirrored his own feelings. She said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, “We must go to the tavern. We have to find out what happened.”
William wanted to go, was just as curious as anyone else, but couldn’t possibly bring his sister. She was truly frightened and hearing further details about a monster killing someone was not a good idea. Indicating Kimber, he looked at Marie and concluded, “I can’t.”
Marie, understanding the problem immediately, thought for a moment. She then offered, “Why don’t I take Kimber to your home and you go to the tavern.”
It was a tempting offer, but Kimber was his responsibility. However, before he could protest, Marie continued, “Look, if you take her home, there is no way your mother will let you back out of the house. If you go to the tavern and I take her home, I’ll just meet you after.”
She was right. He would have a difficult time getting permission to go out after dark under normal circumstances; under the current circumstances…impossible.
“It’s the only way,” Marie went on.
William was about to give in, but then stopped himself. Am I really considering letting Marie and Kimber go off alone at night? No way – especially this night. Shaking his head, he offered, “How about this: We’ll all go together to my house, but I will stay back on the road and you bring Kimber inside. If my parents ask where I am, then tell them I’m at the tavern. I’m not letting you two go off by yourselves.”
“I guess,” admitted Marie after a moment, “that I am not all that eager to be alone right now. Alright, let’s go.”
Walking quickly down Hudson Street, they passed Lewis’ Hotel, Whiting’s Hardware, and other shops along the village green. Several men were coming the other way, evidently going to the tavern. However, once they had passed the stagecoach inn and crossed over the Kinderhook Creek, William, Kimber, and Marie found themselves very alone in the quiet night. The half moon gave off a pale light, taunting in its lack of abundance. With fewer buildings away from the village, the woods and fields that took their place seemed to promise only dangerous things hiding in their shadows.
William kept his eyes wide and moving in order to spot any potential harm. Kimber hugged him tightly while Marie walked close to his side. None of them talked, fearing that making noise would draw unwanted attention to themselves.
As they passed the Silver home, the faint lamp light shining through the windows was a small, but welcomed, reprieve from the oppressive darkness.
Once past the Hamilton’s, William breathed a small sigh of relief as they were getting close. After just a bit more walking, he spotted his family’s home in the distance. “Alright,” he said, “take Kimber and then meet me back here.”
As William tried to hand his sister over, she protested with a loud, “Noooo!”
“Kimber,” William said soothingly, “Mother and Father want to see you. Please let Marie take you to them. I’ll be watching you the entire time. You’ll be safe.”
She didn’t look like she believed him, but seemed to know that it was her only option.
Slowly, William handed his sister over to Marie.
The two girls hurried off while William waited behind. He tried to focus all his attention on them, partially to make sure they were safe, and partially to not think about the fact that he was alone, outside, at night, with a possible killer creature around. Why are monsters so believable in the dark?
He thought about earlier that evening and asked himself, hadn’t they just seen Mr. Ostrum moments before joining Marie? Whatever the older man witnessed must have happened not long after they crossed paths. That nearness to the event made William even more frightened. He hugged his shoulders and looked around the gloomy surroundings expecting something to try and devour him at any moment. The ominous figure of a scarecrow in his family’s field nearly caused him to yell out. He swallowed hard, heart thumping, and thought, Please hurry, Marie!
When he heard a noise, he froze in terror until he realized that it was coming from his home. In the darkness, he couldn’t see too much from where he was standing, just a dark silhouette leaving the house. Finally! After a moment, a second person came out too, lantern in hand. Although it was still hard to tell, he was certain that it was his father.
Of course. If William wasn’t going to let Marie travel alone, his father wouldn’t do anything less.
Feeling a little bad for having Marie lie to his parents, but not wanting to be alone any longer, William decided to wait and walk with Marie and his father – instead of going ahead of them to the tavern. Besides, although William’s mother would be terrified of him being out, his father was a little more tolerant.
As they approached, Marie holding the lantern, William spoke out so as not to surprise them too much. “Hello, Marie,” then, a bit quieter, “Hello, Father.”
When they got a little closer, William saw that his father carried a rifle. He was even happier that he called out ahead.
When his father caught sight of him, he said, “I thought you were at the tavern.”
“I couldn’t let Marie and Kimber walk home alone.”
His father nodded approvingly, “Good boy.”
“So, what now?” William asked, wondering if he would be sent home.
His father responded, “I don’t know about you, but I would like to find out exactly what is going on tonight. To the tavern?”
Taking the lantern from Marie, William led the way. He felt far less frightened having his father – and his father’s rifle – with them. Within twenty minutes, they passed the village green and were nearing Frink’s Tavern. The establishment sounded incredibly boisterous and more people were still were heading in.
At the entrance, William wondered how they would get inside; it looked as if the place was completely full. However, William’s father, Hendrick, was a man of some note in the community – many thought he could even be the town supervisor someday. At the sight of Hendrick Sharp, people stepped aside and made just enough room for him and his two companions to pass.
Inside the crowded tavern, there was barely space to move. A few people were sitting around the well-worn tables, faces lit by lantern light, but everywhere else had people standing. Through the throngs of villagers, all talking excitedly, William, his father, and Marie, slowly searched for a pocket of space to settle in. Not surprisingly, it was quite warm inside with all the people, and the air was heavy; difficult to breathe. The smell of melting wax – from the candles that lined the walls – mixed thickly with the strong aroma of tobacco. A bluish haze of pipe smoke meandered around the heavy beamed ceiling. At the far end of the room, opposite the entrance, Mr. Ostrum could be clearly seen. He must have been standing on a crate or a chair as he was heads and shoulders higher than anyone around.
With so many conversations happening, William could not focus on any one of them. He did hear the terms ‘monster’ and ‘murder’ more than a few times which, as impossible as it seemed, made him feel that maybe what Frederick had told them was true.
When they finally found a spot, William’s father stomped his boot firmly on the floor and called out, “Quiet! Let’s have some quiet!”
He repeated his actions a few times until the noise of talking mostly stopped. Then, in a loud voice, Hendrick Sharp addressed the front of the room. “Mr. Ostrum, I’ve been told that Markus Groet has been found dead, is this true?”
At the question, the crowd stopped any lingering conversations. Mr. Ostrum answered gravely with a single nod, “Yes.”
William saw his father’s jaw tighten. It had to be painful news as Mr. Groet was a very good friend, had helped to get their family farm up and running. “And you found him?”
Mr. Ostrum shook his head. “I did not just find him. I witnessed his murder.”
After a deep breath, fighting down sadness or anger, William’s father said, “I am certain that you have shared your account already, but for the benefit of myself, and those of us that have recently arrived, would you please be kind enough to repeat what you have witnessed? The rumors are already rampant and I would like to put an end to any foolish speculation.”
Mr. Ostrum suddenly looked tired. William felt bad for the elderly man as the ordeal, whatever it turned out to be, could not have been easy. Abraham Finch, Mr. Ostrum’s closest friend, could be heard giving encouragement, “Go on Cornelius; tell them what happened.”
After a dramatic pause, Mr. Ostrum looked up at the gathered villagers and began his tale. “I had just finished an evening of intellectual debate here at Frink’s.” A few laughs from the crowd sounded out at his description. Ignoring them, he went on, “I was making my way home when, not too far from the cemetery, I heard a noise in the bordering woods.”
Although only a few sentences into the account, William could tell that Mr. Ostrum loved the attention. He no longer looked tired, instead, he was excited to be such an important figure that night. However, despite the theatrics, the old man’s eyes disturbed William. There was an undeniable fear that skulked behind them; a kind of panic. Whatever enjoyment he was getting from telling his tale, he could not hide the horror that he was also feeling.
“At first, I ignored the sound as nothing more than an animal rustling some leaves. But when the sound repeated itself, it was accompanied by an inhuman wailing.”
The crowd whispered excitedly.
Mr. Ostrum paused to let his words have their full effect before continuing. “At that point, I knew something was not right. I immediately stepped towards the woods and shouted, ‘Who goes there?’ But there was no answer. My eyes swept through the trees until they spotted a shadow, a shadow that did not belong.”
Again, people listening made various exclamations.
“You all know me,” continued Mr. Ostrum, “and I defy any of you to think me a coward.” He paused to allow anyone to argue his statement. There was a forced cough from someone in the crowd, but no one spoke up.
After feeling the point was made, Mr. Ostrum lowered his voice a little and said slowly, “I am no coward, but I tell you now that what I saw scared me to my core. I am afraid of no natural thing, man or beast, but I was not in the presence of something natural.”
That last detail, coupled with the thinly veiled terror of the older man, truly frightened William. An unnatural thing?
“I again called out, ‘Who goes there?’, and this time the shadow moved. It stood upright and seemed to be looking at something on the ground in front of it. I still had no rational explanation of what I was seeing, but I took a step towards the creature.”
Some in the crowd gasped at the boldness he described.
“That is when,” Mr. Ostrum continued, “it took a few steps back and into a pocket of moonlight.” He paused to wipe his brow with his handkerchief, “As long as I live, I will never forget what I saw.”
William, like the rest of the crowd, was hanging on every word.
“What I saw was a dark, hooded, being covered in leaves and twigs. It was a forest monster from the old tales; a nightmare creature. It was a Moss Maiden!”
At that expression, the crowd erupted with exclamations and questions. There were also a few jeers, as not everyone was in agreement with Mr. Ostrum’s conclusion.
After a minute or so of that raucousness, William’s father once again stomped his boot and asked for silence. When it was sufficiently quiet, Hendrick Sharp asked, “What did the…creature look like?”
Shaking his head, Mr. Ostrum said, “It was too dark to make out any details beyond what I have told you. But I can add one thing: I’m sure it had eyes, for when it turned towards me, I could feel them reaching into my soul, like ice seeping through my skin. I have never been in the presence of an evil like that. It is no exaggeration that I sincerely thought that I was about to die.”
The way he said it was not dramatic, but was delivered with a factual coldness that made it undoubtable and infinitely worse. William noticed he was breathing heavier.
“What happened next?”
“After staring at each other, the creature suddenly turned and ran off deeper in the woods. I immediately gave chase, but when I neared the spot where it had been standing, I spotted something else. That is when I discovered Markus Groet’s body. At the sight of him lying on the forest floor, I stopped my pursuit and went to give assistance. It took only a moment to realize that poor Markus was dead.”
After a heavy sigh, William’s father asked, “And then?”
“I hurried and got help. I found Constable Vosmer and we collected a few men and went back to the body. They searched the area while I, feeling like my nerves were at their very end, came here for a drink.”
William’s father asked, “Is there anything else?”
Mr. Ostrum looked over the expectant crowd, his eyes meeting many of the faces. “There is one more thing,” he said darkly. “Markus Groet’s bleeding stomach had been stuffed with leaves.”
That last statement set the crowd off unlike anything prior. While some mocked the older man, many cried out that it must have been a Moss Maiden.
William looked at Marie and now saw far more fright than confusion. Stories of Moss Maidens were part of Dutch folklore that William, and, no doubt, the entire town, had heard since they were little. They were wood creatures that were sometimes benevolent, giving small coins to people, or malicious, cutting open bellies and stuffing them with straw and pebbles. William had never believed any of it, but, given the account that was just presented, it was an undeniably fitting explanation. Still, a creature of lore prowling the woods and killing people was not an easy thing to think true.
Looking at his father, William saw him staring off at a corner of the room, lost in thought, but a definite look of concern on his face. Did Father believe?
The crowd continued to yell out questions and exclamations in both support and opposition to Mr. Ostrum. William’s father looked at his son and Marie and said, “Come on, there is nothing more for us here.”
It was just as difficult to make their way out as it had been to get in. Once outside, the cold, fresh air tasted good after the stuffy tavern.
Marie asked the question that William also was wondering, “What do you think, Mr. Sharp?”
William’s father shook his head and responded, “I don’t know. It is pretty hard to believe that there is a monster around, but something, or someone, killed Markus Groet. I’m not as confident in naming the danger as Mr. Ostrum is, but, right now, I can only conclude that there is some kind of danger in the area.”
It was not a very reassuring answer. William definitely noticed that his father did not rule out the possibility of a Moss Maiden.
“Father, we should accompany Marie home.”
Hendrick looked at his son and then at Marie, “You will not be travelling alone. However, I think we can find you an escort among the folks here.” Searching through some of the people near the tavern entrance, William’s father got the attention of Mr. Jinipson and arranged for the man to bring Marie home as he lived relatively close to her and her mother.
When they parted ways, William felt terrified to have Marie out of his sight. He was always protective of her, but under the circumstances of that night, he felt utterly responsible for her safety. It wasn’t until his father bid him to ‘Come along, son’ that he finally, reluctantly, turned away from her.
Please, please be alright….