The curse of the confession cabin
Can the curse be broken?
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. That means someone is confessing again. Brave of them to still be there, considering the curse.
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but those who know about it always find it easily. The path leading to it from the road serpentines between evergreen trees, so thick and tall they look ancient. It is covered in prickly dried needles that somehow find their way even into fully covered trekking shoes and wilted leaves from the smaller bushes that constantly fight a lost battle to swallow it back into the forest. It will be here for as long as the cabin is here, for they are two parts of the same thing. Even the woods cannot deny those who wish to confess.
The legend of the confession cabin and its curse is a favorite ghost story among the locals. I heard it at least five times every summer visiting my grandparents in a small town on the outskirts of the forest. As is the right of legends, it circulates in many different versions, but the general gist of it never changes. It goes like this:
Before the cabin was abandoned, it belonged to a local preacher. Despite a generally pious disposition of the inhabitants, the town didn't have a church, and nobody was sure what exact splinter of generally conceived Christianity the townfolk identified with the most. The preacher went by Father Joachim in most versions of the legend and it was said that he disposed of the wisdom and gentleness of a religious leader capable of winning the favor of even such an eclectic community. He would preach in the Townsquare, lead the people in prayer, visit the sick and ailing, organize Sunday school for the children at the community center. The only time he had visitors in the cabin was for confession.
When somebody went to Father Joachim to confess their sins, a candle was lit in the window so other potential visitors would know not to intrude. Different versions of the legend differ in how confession was perceived by the townsfolk. Some say that it was generally disliked and distrusted, few people went.
"We believed that our sins are between us and God." Said the widow Samantha White when she told us the story over cocoa and lemon cake one rainy afternoon. The village children and I always went to visit her on rainy days in the summer, because she would give us treats and we would trick her into telling us scary stories. She was lonely, and sweet, and her home smelled of lavender. When she told us the legend, she spoke as if she was there to remember it all. Back then I believed her because children have no concept of time, but now I think it was just for dramatic effect. She would have said anything we liked to hear just to have company.
"Only those with the most guilty conscience would go to Father Joachim." Went Samantha's version of the tale. "Those who could not sleep at night because of what they did, for whom prayer alone did not help and they didn't know how to atone. When that candle burned at night, we knew that someone did something horrible. If someone disappeared and then the candle would burn, we knew they were dead, and likely not by accident. But Father Joachim would never tell who confessed and to what. Even murder. The secret of the confession was absolute."
Others said that confession was well liked as a way to exercise piety. My friend Mike's grandfather claimed he visited Father Joachim himself as a young boy roughly every week.
"It was nice to have someone like that, you know." Mike recounted his grandpa's words with dramatic intonation. "You could tell him all the things you felt bad about and he would tell you it was okay to make mistakes. And he could never tell anyone about it! He kept your guilty secrets forever. It was very good to have someone like that, everybody liked it. That candle would burn every night."
All was well with the benevolent preacher absolving the guilty of their sins by candlelight, until it wasn't. Lilianne Evergreen, she was called, all versions of the legend agree. A young, beautiful woman. Pale skin covered with freckles, emerald eyes, a storm of flaming ginger hair. How cliche.
One summer night, right after dusk, frenzy arose in the town. Neighbors banged on each other's doors, calling one another to quickly, now, to the Townsquare, hurry now, there's no time! A gathering of half-dressed, distressed residents eventually gathered around to find Father Joachim screaming something, waving his hands, and staggering around as if possessed. His usually mild disposition was nothing but a memory. Lilianne Evergreen was on her knees, sobbing softly, face in her hands.
Soon, from the incoherent commotion of the screaming preacher and distressed onlookers some of whom tried to calm him down while others were starting to follow into the frenzy, a comprehensible message emerged: burn the witch.
This is where our legend differs from the ghost stories you hear outside the region. In an odd twist of events, the townsfolk did not burn Lilianne for witchcraft, even though her guilt was beyond doubt as she confessed to her grave sin herself. What the pious residents of the town found more offensive to their faith than meddling with the dark arts was breaking the secrecy of confession. The mob turned against Father Joachim for breaking the sanctity of what was entrusted to him by the light of the candle.
"They killed him brutally, I don't know how." Goes the version graciously censored for the young ear by Samantha White. "They were afraid that if he betrayed Lilianne's sin, he could one day betray them all."
"He was hung from a tree in front of his cabin, poor fellow." More graphically remembers Mike's grandpa. Mike himself believed this was also a censored version and that Father Joachim was in fact "Ripped to shreds, his dismembered remains scattered along the path to the cabin."
The method used by the mob to bring about Joahim's painful demise is the most variable element of the legend and there are almost as many cruel deaths cooked up for him as there are storytellers, each more morbid than the others. Another unknown is what happened to Lilianne Evergreen. Everyone concedes that she was never seen again in town, but whether she escaped amidst the frenzy, changed her appearance with magic and remained in the village under a different name, or was taken straight to hell by the evil spirits she commuted with is not agreed upon. What happened next, though, is once again quite steady across versions.
"People missed the confessions, for some reason." Samantha always shook her head and refilled our cups of cocoa at this point in the story no matter how many times she told it. "But they didn't want any more preachers. They kept going to the cabin, lighting the candle, and writing down their confessions. The rule was simple - confessions could never leave the cabin. You had to write about your sin and leave the paper there. It was never said out loud, but the understanding was that nobody would read anything that someone else had written. If they did, they would join the ghost of the oathbreaker Joachim in his torment for sharing secrets not meant to leave the cabin. Such is the curse of the confession cabin."
"But what happens if you get cursed?" We would ask Samantha, but she wouldn't say. Maybe this one she really didn't know.
"You disappear." That was all she told us. "Maybe, you turn into a tree in the forest. Maybe you die and haunt the cabin together with Father Joachim. And maybe your soul is sucked out of you and used as fuel for that damned candle that burns and burns and never seems to melt down."
* * *
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, and I've been inside twice. I never told anyone about it.
The first time I was in the cabin, I was a child. It was early in the summer, soon after my first year of school. Mom parked the car on the side of the road, took my hand, and lead me through the path. I don't remember much except that I was scared. It was getting dark and my mother was taking me deep into the old forest along a path I could barely see between the branches of bushes. I knew the story of Hansel and Gretel, abandoned in the woods by the parents, and I couldn't help but think about it then. Time and again, a branch would painfully brush against my arms or face, scratching angry red marks into my delicate six-year-old skin. I complained, but mom didn't care. She just muttered that we were almost there.
Inside, the cabin was surprisingly cozy and clean, considering nobody lived there. There was hardly any dust on the furniture. The air smelled of wood and resin like forest cottages often do - a warm, welcoming scent. Mom lit an oil lamp and told me to stay in the main room, while she disappeared through a door in the corner. I sat in an old, big armchair next to the lamp to be as close to the source of light as I could. Despite the cozy feeling the interior of the cabin gave off, I was uneasy being left alone in the dark in a foreign room in the middle of the forest.
Soon, the anxiety took over and I tiptoed to the door my mother had crossed to make sure it wasn't a back exit that she used to leave me in the cabin forever. To my relief, it lead to a smaller room. It was once a bedroom, but the bed was now covered in boxes upon boxes full of old notebooks, folders, and loose papers. The pile reached almost to the ceiling. The bookshelf looked much the same, and there were more boxes piled along the walls. A room full of paper. The only clear space was a simple wooden desk by the window, at which my mother sat scribbling something frantically in a notebook. A candle burned in the window above her. Her red hair glimmered in the light of the flame.
I stood in the doorway mesmerized. I've never seen so much paper in one place before. The room smelled like an old library, the air was still, but I would swear I could hear the pages rustling softly. I loved paper. I couldn't read very well yet, but I could flip through books for hours, and when I wasn't flipping through a book, I was pretending to be writing one, drawing random scribbles that reminded me of letters in black ink on the white, smooth surface of a new notebook. This room looked like a place I could spend all summer in, I thought. But that's when mom noticed me.
"Don't touch anything!" She screamed as she shot up from the chair towards me. I've never before or after seen such fear in her eyes. She left whatever she was writing on the table, grabbed me, and left the cabin at once. Outside the door, she put me on the ground and dragged me by the hand. She was walking much too fast for my short legs to keep up, so I tripped and automatically looked behind me as if expecting something to be chasing us. I know she didn't put out the candle before we left, but the window was dark.
* * *
My mother never spoke to me about this incident. It was understood, I think, that I would not mention it to anyone and never go back to the cabin myself. But if she intended to keep me away from it, why did she start to make me spend every summer in town from then on?
I tried my best to forget about the cabin, but what can a child do during those still and humid summer evenings that seem to drag on forever in a sleepy small town away from everything other than snoop around? I was an attraction to the few local kids, Mike and the gang, since I appeared only for two months in the year and then went off again into another world. They asked a lot about my life during the school year, so I started asking about theirs. The legend of the confessing cabin was the tale shared most eagerly, their little pride of a ghost story. As far as I knew back then, none of these kids were even sure whether this cabin actually existed. But maybe I was too naive thinking they would have told me if they had seen it. After all, I lied about it too.
* * *
Twelve years elapsed between the last summer I spent in town and the time I finally went back to face my past. That summer, I was fifteen, just out of middle school. We weren't into ghost stories any more. What I remember is blurry after so much time, but we traded cocoa and lemon cake at Samantha White's for beer and cigarettes behind the abandoned ruin of a building that was once the community center. That summer I kissed Mike on the mouth like the mature girl I was back then and said goodbye to that gloomy ghost town for what I thought was forever. I knew I wouldn't go back. My mom was the only reason I spend my summers there and that summer she was dying. Doctors were giving her three months. She made it through five. But by the next summer, she was gone and I was at a foreign language exchange summer camp in Paris, all stories of the cabin behind me.
The past has a weird way of creeping up on you. I returned to that forest at the ripe age of twenty-seven researching folklore for my graduate thesis in journalism. I couldn't get the legend of the confessing cabin and its curse out of my mind, because it was just so different from the usual ghost stories. They didn't burn the witch.
What happened to the witch? I put down in my notebook and went searching the archives for Lilianne Evergreen.
They killed the preacher.
Who was the preacher? I entitled a new chapter and went searching for any mention of a religious figure known as "Father Joachim" in the area.
There was a curse.
What is the curse? None of the tales ever mentioned anyone affected by it. But since they believed in it, there must have been some clues. I ordered the archives of all newspapers in the region searching for unexplainable injuries or deaths that could be attributed to the curse of the cabin.
To my surprise, the answers to the last question popped out first.
Catherine Brown, 38. Disappeared after being seen walking towards the forest two days after coming forward claiming she had new information about the mysterious death of her brother James Brown three years prior. Authorities are investigating potential homicide. The forest was searched, but no trace of Catherine or her body was found.
She was a resident of the town.
Conrad Saltline, 55. Disappeared during the night. Neighbors say he was obsessed with finding out the identity of the man who allegedly sexually assaulted his daughter ten years prior. Please report any sightings to the authorities immediately.
I knew his daughter when we were children. I had no idea something that awful had happened to her since. Finally,
Michael Khol, 26.
Mike went missing just like Conrad. Went out one night, never returned. That was two years ago and I still cannot believe they haven't found any trace of him. Even if he knew, as well as I did, that the cabin existed and what was inside - why would he go looking? As far as I knew, no crime happened around him that would prompt him to go that far in his search. But did I really know him? Does anyone really know the first boy they kiss?
Three disappearances over twenty years aren't proof of anything, journalistically speaking. But it is enough to make a curse. And with a personal touch to the story, I had a nearly perfect thesis. Each of them was looking for something, they found it where they weren't supposed to and paid the price. Easy ghost story, all within the parameters. But what about me? Where is the transformation of the author, the growth as they revisit their roots and discover something about themselves that turns their world upside down? For an outstanding thesis, I needed more. Luckily, I had an idea where I could find answers.
* * *
I love paper. The smell of old libraries always lures me in like a moth to the flame. Dry, yellowed pages of books or notebooks hold an almost addictive appeal. The way they seem to crumble at the edges under my fingertips. The rough, not fully even surface as I run a pencil across a page. It's all like a drug to me. It has been since before I can remember. Whatever written text I can get my hands on, I read compulsively, getting high off the feeling of knowing something I didn't know before.
You guessed it, didn't you?
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night a candle burned in the window, again. Those who know about it always find it easily. Passing over such a trove of knowledge would have been a worse sin than the one I committed.
As for the curse, I'm torn as to what to believe. I'm a scholar of folklore after all, so I know all curses can be broken. But whether I'll succeed or whether my soul will forever fuel the candle that is currently lighting these pages remains to be seen. For the sake of both of us, I hope I'll make it out ok.
But you probably already know whether I did, don't you? After all, you're reading the confession I left in the cabin.
About the author
PhD candidate in linguistics trying to creatively vent out the frustrations of academia. I write about travel, philosophy, and occassionally other things that pop into my mind. Sometimes I dabble in fiction.