The Will of the Wisp
Story by Jeff Crowder
Chuck really enjoyed his early morning hikes on the ridge above his home. Since moving from the din of the DC suburbs to the remote southwest Virginia property, his habit had become to rise just a bit before the sun each morning and stride out along the ridge top a mile or so each way before the first cup of coffee on his porch. Especially on crisp, early autumn mornings, Chuck found the exercise and the beauty of the ridges and valleys around his home cleared his mind and made his whole day better from the start.
On many mornings, fog lay low in the sinking hollows among the blue hills rising above. The wispy fog reflected the pinks, violets, and oranges of the Appalachian sunrise in spectacular fashion. Chuck’s path kept him high on the tallest ridge and he strode above the foggy bottoms soaking in the radiance from the rising sun.
But the fog was not always there. On dry or breezy mornings the valley floors would be clear and visible with the exception of one particularly dark and deep hollow near the end of Chuck’s mile. Regardless of the weather, this one hollow below a long slope trailing off the end of Chuck’s mountain had a thick layer of dark mist pooled in its depths every morning.
Chuck had noticed this perpetual fog the first year he had lived there and, while he thought it peculiar, he had not initially given it much thought. He assumed maybe the hollow was damp with a large spring or there was some other natural phenomenon at play.
But he never failed to notice it on those dry or breezy mornings and by the third year the mistery had gnawed at his curiosity until finally he decided he would hike into the hollow to see if he could determine the source of the vapor.
So on a particularly crisp, moonlit September morning Chuck set out a bit earlier than usual bound over the ridge for the foggy hollow. The moon was waning just past full and it shone bright enough that he did not need the light from his LED headlamp. Walking briskly, he was halfway down the trailing slope toward the bottom by the time the sun poured some light into the woods. Descending further, he came to a ledge on the side of the slope where he could peer down into the fog laying in the break just below. He dropped off the ledge and walked down into the fog so thick it felt to Chuck like it physically resisted his forward motion. The fog swirled and rushed around him as he traveled and the chill of the morning air sinking into the depths made his skin feel clammy and cold.
He walked several hundred yards further down (or maybe a mile, it was difficult to tell), until he came upon a small house sitting alone in a clearing with a crumbling stone wall around the brushy remains of a yard. Through the dense fog hanging in the clearing, he could see the vine-covered house was in disrepair and appeared to have been abandoned decades before.
Chuck ventured into the cabin and saw a strangely luminescent wisp of the fog trailing inside the house down the dark hallway and through a door into the old kitchen. He followed into the kitchen where the vapor seemed to gather around a small table near an old cook stove. One encrusted window let in just enough light from the foggy sky to see items in the room. On the table lay a small book.
Using the light from the headlamp the pierce the gloom, Chuck opened the book and found it was a journal recounting the life of a woman he assumed had lived in the house. The first pages described a happy, adventurous beginning with a young couple staking their claim in the remote frontier, clearing some land, building a home, and starting a family. The woman had given birth to two beautiful children and although she missed her childhood home and family in a more populated community and sometimes felt a bit cut off, she and her husband were thriving together and her children grew.
Then brutal tragedy had fallen upon the family. They rarely traveled but the husband had been killed in a train accident in a dense fog along the New River. Soon after, the woman’s son lay dying with a fever. Her daughter set out over the mountain on horseback for the doctor but did not return. She and the old gelding vanished into the forest leaving no trace. A long hunt by the people in the adjoining valleys and a longer hunt by the woman had turned up no clue to her daughter’s fate. The son had not lasted through the night when the daughter was lost.
The woman had written in the journal sparingly after that and her despair increased acutely as the pages turned under Chuck's fingers. She wrote of crippling loneliness missing her dead husband and son. Chuck felt tears tracing his cheek as he read of the widow’s vigil watching the yard morning and night for her daughter’s return. She wrote of the fog in the bottom seeming to become fixated on the gloom and her words took on a tone ever more beset with trauma and loathing.
At the end of the journal, the woman had written deliriously of her conviction that the fog was trying to suffocate her. "This fog has taken my daughter and is keeping her hidden. It wants to kill me and carry my body away from my husband and son. It hates me." The scrawled words trailed off and there was nothing more on the remaining pages.
Chuck laid the little book back down on the table and walked from the kitchen and out of the house. He headed back through the yard to the edge of the woods and turned. He could see the crumbled stones around the yard but the house was no longer visible. "Obscured by the fog," he thought. As he walked from the bottom, the fog swirled around him and breathed in and out with him as he exerted to climb up and out of it.
Finally he saw the ledge above as he emerged at the edge of the vapor pool. The sun shone brightly over the ridge in a crystal blue September sky. A wisp-poor-will called high on the mountain and a dog barked in the distance. Chuck felt profound sadness for the woman who had left the journal probably decades before but at the same time he felt the warmth of the rising September day and he looked forward to the coffee and his old dog, Mister Ed, waiting for him on the porch of his Appalachian home.
The fog grabbed Chuck’s ankle.
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The Trees are Talking
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