The Events in Blight's Holler
The Journal of Ernest Cantwell, Reporter
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. I know this because I am the person who lit the candle and illuminated my own fate.
If you are reading this, then I have been finally found. What follows is my true account of what occurred September 29-30, 2019 in the forest surrounding what is known as Blight’s Holler in Pennsylvania. I ask that you take this journal to Mr. Pericles Blanche, owner/editor/publisher of the Harmony Observer
It all began as an assignment from my editor, Mr. Perry Blanche. For a number of years, decades actually, people have been disappearing without explanation in the hills above our town. It happened so gradually that it took longer than it should have for anyone to note that something very strange was going on.
First, there was a runaway wife, then a rebellious teenager, followed by an adulterous couple on a tryst - these were all folks who seemed like maybe they wanted to be lost and never found. But then there was the ginseng hunter, and a survey team for the lumber company, and finally a trio of Boy Scouts, all gone without a trace. I mean literally no trace. There was never a shoe or a bone or a shred of fabric on a thorn, nothing. And the dogs never picked up any scents. The hounds did sense something, but nothing they had any interest in finding. Once they got a little ways into those hollers, the dogs would lie down on their bellies and whine and refuse to go one step farther. It didn’t matter what the handlers did, those dogs would have stayed there until the Rapture. The only command they heard was “Come” and they couldn’t get out of the woods and back into the trucks fast enough.
Well, naturally the rumors and theories started to take hold. Alien abductions, sinkholes, mine shafts, werewolves, drug dealers, people-eating bears, you name it. The ones that took root the most were the ones about the Blight family.
The Blights have lived in those hills for generations. They were and are famously reclusive.They rarely interact with the rest of the world and are almost entirely self-sustaining with their gardens and canning and hunting. They are rumored to be prodigious weavers and potters and basket makers. Some are supposed to be exceptionally talented artists. Many are said to have a distinctive “family look” of thick, bright red hair and green eyes. And lastly, they speak in some kind of archaic dialect said to be close to Elizabethan or even earlier Middle English.
For the longest time the town, the county and even the state had a live and let live policy about the Blights. Truant officers were taken off the case in the fifties when no one could ever figure out the number and ages of Blight children. It’s true that a few hunters reported contentious run-ins with the clan, but further investigations proved without exception that the hunters were illegally on Blight property, part of original land grants from the very first surveys of the state.
The missing Boy Scouts put an end to laissez-faire attitudes. New and more sinister stories about the Blights began to make the rounds. Organ harvesting, human trafficking, bondage, slavery and even cannibalism became grist for the mill. Secretive vigilante justice gangs were forming, along with whispered plans to burn Blight homes and kill their animals.
As the Letters to the Editor page grew more and more unhinged, my publisher/owner decided that an all encompassing overview article recapping all the disappearances and the competing theories would make a bang-up article for the Sunday magazine.
He thought most of the theories outlandish in a country bumpkinish way, and predicted our more sophisticated audience of readers would be amused by the fanciful notions of our less erudite neighbors. He wanted me to demystify the Blights and prevent our town from becoming a modern parallel to the village surrounding Frankenstein’s Castle.
“Cantwell, I want you to go up there yourself and I want you to find some Blights and spend the night there. There’s two angles to play. Either nothing happens and you’re no worse for wear but for losing a night's rest and sleeping with one eye open. If so, we’ll focus the rest of the story on how ignorance and superstition are gasoline to the engines of violence (write that down) and the need for expanded education ” He paused to draw on his cigar and looked for my reaction.
I am sure he noted the reflexive roll of my eyes when I realized I was being set up for yet another one of his Save the World social crusade pieces. I had already spent a week in a mental institution for one expose and had disguised myself as a mute pregnant woman for the story that brought down the baby-selling priest.
“What’s the other angle?” I asked.
He chuckled. “The second option is that you find out the place is crawling with bogeymen, werewolves, and whatnot, which you will naturally outwit with your superior cunning and intellect and live to tell the tale for our subscribers. You’ll have to be the judge of which story you prefer to write, although I could hazard a guess as to what it turns out to be.”
“So, you don’t believe in bogeymen and bumpy things in the night?” I said as I packed my notebooks and pens into the small case I carried.
“No, but I was just kidding that your superior cunning and intellect would save you if there were any. We do have your next of kin in your file, right? Now get a move on. It will be a tight squeeze to get this in shape for the magazine this week.”
So I left our little municipal toehold in the foothills and traveled a windy ascending thirty miles to Blight’s Holler. There is nothing in Blight’s Holler except for a general store with a gas pump which doubles as the post office and the agricultural extension station.
The general store could have been an old picture come to life; it was almost exclusively dry goods and canned wares, there was no refrigeration or freezers anywhere apparent on the premises.
“Electricity’s too spotty out here, “ explained Zeke Miller, the proprietor. “We get zapped by lightning on a regular basis. That’s why all the oil lamps and candles. Oh, and you can forget about your cell phone. There is no coverage here. This is a complete dead zone. You got a good lantern?”
I replied that I did and then asked him how I could contact the Blights.
“Oh, that’s easy, ” he said. “Just start walking past the posted Keep Out signs. I guarantee you that they’ll be in touch with you soon enough.”
“You have good relations with them?” I asked. There’s nothing to all this hooey bunk about them, right?”
Zeke shrugged. “Sure, I have good relations with them, but then I respect their boundaries. If people want to be left alone then I leave them alone. Plus, they use me as their agent, so I’m not gonna do anything to screw that up.”
“Agent for what?” was the natural question.
He looked at me and opened his mouth several times as though he were going to speak, but each time changed his mind. Finally, he stood up and threw his shoulders back resolutely and picked up the keys on the counter to lock the store up.
“Okay, I’ll show you, but this has to be strictly off the record, and I want your word on that. Do I have your guarantee?”
After I swore confidentiality, Zeke led me outside around to the back of the store and then we took a short walk to a looming hedge wall with a large door masked by vines that could be barely seen. There was an ancient lock on the hasp and Zeke fished an old iron key out of his pocket. He put the key in the lock and turned it, but before pushing the door open he turned to me and said, “The only reason I’m sharing this with you is because of the state those yahoos in town have worked themselves into. The Blights are very special people. They have to be protected. I think you’re the only one who can stop a tragedy in the making. You’ll see what I’m talking about.”
Once through the door, we were in an enormous barn, lit only by the shafts of sun coming through the skylights.
“Oh my God,” I breathed.
I was in an Aladdin’s cave, but one filled with the artifacts of earlier generations and centuries, or so it seemed. There were baskets of every size, color and configuration, woven so tightly that I imagined that some would suffice as water carriers. Some were small enough to hold only a pair of earrings and there were others large enough to be used as a casket. Then there was pottery, just as varied in its inventory, as well as textiles of every hue and size. There were paintings and carvings and woodworks and furniture and sculptures. But the paintings! gorgeous portraits of men and women, many with bright red hair and green eyes that would not have been out of place at the Uffizi Gallery, as well as still lifes of hares and frogs and fish and birds done in such hyper-realism that they could have flown or hopped or flopped out of their frames.
“They should have their own store or museum or something,” I said to Zeke. “People would come from everywhere to see this stuff and buy it. How do you keep this quiet? Why do you keep this quiet? They’re like the greatest group of artists that have ever lived. They make Michaelangelo look like a piker.”
At my exclamations, Zeke began uneasily looking around, as though he were afraid of us being observed or overheard and began pushing me back towards the door.
“Okay, that’s enough of the commentary. Remember, you never saw any of this - my ass would be grass if they ever found out I showed you. Now, let’s get out of here.”
“But, why?” I persisted. “Why wouldn’t they want people to know how gifted they are? Why hide their light under a barrel buried in the backwoods of Appalachia? They could be in every gallery in the country and the world.”
“Which is exactly what they don’t want. They are tied to this land. They never leave this land. They don’t want to go anywhere and they don’t want any outsiders to come here. Their artistry is a curse and a burden to them. They can’t not do it, and yet they have to keep it under wraps.” He closed and relocked the barn door and began trotting back up the path to the store with me huffing unathletically behind him.
“What did you mean when you said you were their agent? Do you sell the works for them? Who buys it?” I wheezed when we were back inside.
He answered, “Over the years, I have cultivated a handful of ultra-luxe gallery owners. They each have a small circle of buyers who are some of the wealthiest people in the world. We run three auctions a year with a catalog that is only available to those buyers. They all know that if anyone breaches the non-disclosure they signed, the sale will be rescinded and the works returned and a hefty penalty paid as well. These buyers aren’t looking for recognition for their collections, they are more into the possessing , the glory of owning the best in the world, even if nobody else is ever aware of it. Believe me, there are people like that."
My mind was whirring. I had stumbled upon the greatest cache of great art and artists of the modern era hidden away in the isolated and verdant valleys of the American Northeast and due to the journalistic promises of confidentiality I had made, I was honor bound not to disclose their existence! Imagine if you will, a diver discovering Atlantis being similarly constricted. I think I knew in that moment that I would break my oath to Zeke Miller and vicariously, the Blights. Would an astronomer honor a promise to not disclose a new planet, or a physicist a new element? Some knowledge is simply too large to be contained, I told myself. Now I needed to meet these singular beings in person.
After yet more insincere professions of my good faith to Zeke, I gathered up my rucksack with my lantern tethered to it and headed outdoors and away from the speck of modernity represented by the store and its gas pump. Once I was what I judged to be a safe distance away, I checked to make sure that my brand-new super-sensitive, all but invisible, video and sound recording device was still wired correctly and functioning, hidden as it was with microphones and cameras in both my hat as well as the pocket of my jacket. I hoped that Zeke’s explanation of his role in the Blight global mercantile structure was clear and decipherable, while I was sure that after editing, my own contributions to the discussion would end up labeled as “inaudible”.
I began my outing later than planned, as per usual, and it was well into mid-afternoon before I began to see the first posted “No Trespassing, Private Land, No Hunting” notices popping up on trees both close and far. They were on either neon orange or yellow stock so vibrant it would be impossible for any person to make a claim that they were unnoticed. The forest became denser and the atmosphere closer and warmer. There was a constant insect background noise of humming and whining. I remembered why I detested camping in woods when forced as a child to embark on male bonding missions with my father and uncles and cousins. Instead of emerging from the forest primeval manlier and more self-confident and one with nature as envisioned by my mother and the aunts, I thought we all, adults and children alike, seemed smaller and weaker and more pathetic when measured against the wilderness our forebears had conquered and civilized. But, I digress.
I had yet to find any shelters or huts or to see any people, but I had the distinct sensation that I was being watched. I would turn suddenly and without warning in order to catch a glimpse of my observer, with no success. I shouted “Halloo!” over and over to no response. My watch stopped for no reason. I realized that what seemed like several defined paths trod by many had all disappeared. I took out my compass as I determined to make my way back to the store and abort my ridiculous mission. The compass needle spun first one way and then the other without ever coming to rest. It became some kind of perpetual motion instrument. I was overcome by a sense of dread and heaviness and hopelessness.
I was lost. I was in some kind of void or nether world. Strangely, I don’t recall feeling cold or hungry. But I was starving for something - light. I knew the sun was setting and what frightened me beyond reason was the idea of unrelenting darkness. The trees were so dense that I doubted that any glimmer of moon or stars would penetrate through the boughs. I unhooked my lantern from its loop on my rucksack and opened the side pocket where I had put numerous extra batteries. According to the manufacturer, I had at least two days of light. My car was still at the store and when I didn’t return in the morning, I felt sure that Zeke would raise some kind of alarm. My editor did not expect me to stay in the forest on my expedition any more than one day, two at the most, due to deadline pressure. He would look for me. He would be angry and upset that I violated his first rule of journalism - don’t become the story.
I turned the lantern switch to ON. Nothing. I toggled it back and forth. Nothing. I removed the batteries and put them back in and tried again. Nothing. I took out the batteries and replaced them with others. I did this over and over in different pairings and combos. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
The lantern did not work. I didn’t think it was possible for all the batteries to be bad as there was more than one package and from different manufacturers. The lantern itself must be the problem. Another worthless piece of junk from the moment the box had been opened. Why in God’s name had I not bothered to test it immediately after I got it home? Why did I buy the cheapest one? I speculated ironically on my epitaph - “Here lies Ernest Cantwell, Killed by Laziness and Frugality”. Of course an epitaph would be a luxury, since it implied both a grave and a funeral, who knows if those things would ever occur.
Stop! I ordered myself. I needed to pull out of this spiral of self-induced hysteria. Really, get a hold of yourself. You’re lost in the woods for a night. Find a spot to bed down and wait til morning and then walk out of here. You need to head east, that’s enough to know. You will find a road or a person or a house. I nodded in agreement with the stronger calmer voice in my head.
I found a spot with a fallen tree and sat down and leaned against it. It was in front of a large cliff or rock formation; I wasn’t sure how high it went, but it gave me a sense of comfort that nothing could sneak up on me from behind. I pulled out my thermos and drank the last of my coffee and ate my last granola bar. I took off my jacket and draped it over myself like a blanket and drifted off to an uncomfortable drowse.
I woke up because something was kicking my foot. I dreaded opening my eyes as I had no idea if they would be met with an image of salvation or damnation. There was light in my face, and a figure holding an oil lamp. It was a woman although I could not see her very distinctly. She was wearing a dress and a cloak with a hood - very old fashioned.
“Hǒu havæ wẹ̄-self h're” she said as she peered down at me.
“I’m sorry, what?” I responded. “English? Speak English?”
“Aye,” she nodded. “Follow ich”.
I of course caught the word follow and I was happy to. I scrambled to my feet and had just picked up my rucksack when she suddenly took off into the woods. It was all I could do to barely keep up with her. I could only follow the glow of her lantern which I never lost sight of, it was like chasing a firefly. There was no path and yet there was. She made her way as though she knew the placement of every tree and where to turn this way and then later, that way. Finally, there was a clearing and a dell and in the dell was a small cabin which was ringed by thirty large sarsen stones. My guide stood in the doorway and gestured for me to follow her inside.
In the dim light of her lamp, it was clear that the cabin had not been used for a long time. There were cobwebs and dust everywhere. The woman took off her cloak and hung it on a peg in the wall and then turned to face me. I realized I was in the presence of a member of the Blight family.
I could not say how old she was, she could have been anywhere from eighteen to fifty. She had long, thick, bright red hair done in a loose braid. Her complexion was oddly translucent with a slight yellow caste to it, subtle, yet noticeable. I wondered if perhaps she was unwell. Her eyes. I have never seen eyes like hers. They were large and green, but not the emerald green seen in the paintings, more of a peridot color. They were much rounder than the eyes of the painted Blights. She also had a pronounced underbite and her chin seemed to sink into her throat. She was lovely, but not in any conventional sense, more as a creature from another world. I wondered if she was representational of other Blights or if she was unique. If she were a typical Blight, I could understand their reclusivity because her appearance would have excited curiosity and even perhaps some fear and revulsion in anyone who rejected any deviation from the normal.
Perhaps they painted their portrait people as they knew humans like to see themselves presented. I wouldn’t know unless I had the opportunity to meet with more Blights.
She blinked slowly as she appraised me as much as I was taking inventory of her. I pointed to myself and said “Ernest” and repeated it several times. I thought it was clear that I was introducing myself. She did understand as she then pointed to herself and said “Mirabel”. Beyond that, she took no interest in any further confab. She turned and walked over to a cupboard which she opened, surveyed a line of jars, and took one down along with a wooden bowl. She emptied the contents into the bowl and then presented it to me with a pewter spoon taken from a rack on the wall. It looked like a bowl of raspberry jam.
“Iēten,” she instructed. When I hesitated, she pointed to her mouth. “Iēten, iēten” she repeated impatiently. Yes, I was hungry, but I was hesitant to eat whatever I was being given. Who knew what it was and how long it had been there? She saw my trepidation and took her finger, stuck it into the glop and then into her mouth. Her fingers, I noticed, were webbed.
“TreaÞ!” she exclaimed and rubbed her tummy and made yummy noises.
It seemed impossible to refuse it after that. I tasted it gingerly. It was delicious. I could not tell you what it was, it tasted of both berries and meat and was simultaneously sweet and savory. I silently laughed to myself as I thought that while the art was great, this concoction was what the world would beat a path to their door for. I would have to mention this to Zeke the next time that I saw him.
When I finished the bowl, she took it from me and pointed to a bed that was in the corner of the room. While I was eating, she had taken the covers off and shaken them outside and then relaid the bed with them. They were fine and soft and beautifully made, just as the ones in the barn had been. I wondered whose cabin this was and why it wasn’t currently occupied. I started to drift off, as I was warm and cozy and my stomach was full. I felt I was in a cabin at the end of the world, the old world, the one that was carried on the back of a tortoise. I felt this world was more real and alive and breathing than the one I had existed in only earlier that day. I wasn’t sure that I ever wanted to leave this one and go back to the other. I rolled over because I wanted to thank Mirabel for caring for and feeding me; even if she didn’t understand my actual words, I felt sure she would get my meaning. I was just in time to see her zap a bug flying around her lantern with a flick of her long, whiplike tongue.
When I finally awoke, it was daytime, I was alone and Mirabel was gone. The washed bowl and spoon were on the table and two more jars of the amazing miracle concoction were set out as well as a red candle in a bronze holder. I took this to mean that she had provided both food for the day and light for the coming night.
While I was grateful, I was also exasperated. What I wanted was to be introduced to others of her clan or, alternately, to be led back to civilization. I got my jacket and hat from off the trunk at the end of the bed and looked for my video and sound recorders so I could replay them to see how much of my adventure had been captured. They were gone. Vanished. Perhaps Mirabel is not as archaic as she appears and recognized them for what they were. There goes my Pulitzer, I thought. I wasn’t sure that I could ever remember everything that has transpired accurately, or get anyone to believe me even if I did. The video evidence was critical. Maybe I could convince Mirabel to return it to me. I am grateful to see that she did leave my notebooks and pens, so I have decided to spend the day writing down my recollections while they are still fresh.
I am in danger. I am a prisoner in this cabin. There are grates over the windows that I did not notice in the nighttime. The door is barred from the outside. The chimney is too narrow to climb. Why, why, why did I go on this stupid assigment? Perry, why didn’t you get a photographer to go with me like I asked? I’m sure two minds could have found their way out of the woods. Make sure my mother gets that crummy life insurance policy you offer as part of your so-called benefits.
Oh my God, I don’t know how to even write this down, my hands are trembling so much. After I finished my account, I looked around the cabin as I was restless. I opened the trunk at the foot of the bed and I found:
A 1940’s type of lady’s hat, 2 wedding rings, a copy of Teen Beat magazine, a bag of ginseng, some surveyor tools, numerous hunting licenses and some strange pieces of embroidery that I finally realized were Boy Scout merit badges!
I’m not ashamed to say I am crying. I know there is only one reason those things would be in this cabin
It’s getting dark. I am alone and afraid. I will have to light the candle soon.
They are gathering outside. I’m not sure how many of them there are. From what I can see, most do look like Mirabel, with pale yellow skin and round green eyes, although a few look more like the portraits, so there’s your answer, if you care. Since it’s dusk, the bugs are out in force and I can hear the tongues of the Blight’s hiss and slither as they zap them out of the air.
I ate the food. A person wants to survive no matter how frightened they are. I want to have strength to fight them off. I realized after the second jar that the concoction makes a person feel calm, and secure and even happy, if that’s possible. I got the sense again of being one with every living thing, I feel like I can almost converse with the trees and the birds without saying any words.
I lit the candle. I don’t know how this can be, but the flame of the candle is red and the light thrown by the candle is red. And there is a scent as well - like rusty flowers. I realize it's the scent of blood and rebirth. I am ready. I am ready to become a part of the forest. I am ready to become a Blight. They are taking the bar off the do . . . .
About the author
I live in a seaside New England village and am trying to become the writer I always wanted to be. I focus on writing short stories and personal essays and I hope you enjoy my efforts. Likes and tips are very encouraging.