Monday, October 22, 2012

Hograss Forest

My first year at scout camp was at Camp Loll, which is near the southern edge of Yellowstone National Park. The camp director that year was Delose Conner [1], who has acquired some local fame for his storytelling. One evening we scouts were to do a compass course. But before letting us wander out into the dark, Delose gathered us all together and told us some bear stories—the kind that make you wet your pants. Then he cheerfully sent us out into the dark armed with nothing more than our flashlights and our compasses. Not long into the course one of the staff showed up to tell us that a bear had been spotted at the other end of the valley with her two cubs. A little while later another staff member showed up and told us that the bear and her cubs were wandering our way, so we should carefully make our way back to camp. As we were all trudging nervously down the hill back to camp, a horrible growl sounded right in front of us at the bottom of the hill. We abandoned all of our training and ran away…until we noticed that our scout leaders were laughing at us. It was all a big joke. I wrote this story for Hallowe'en for the BYU 38th Ward Book Club.[2] It is inspired by one of the stories Delose told us.[3] Read on if you dare! Happy Hallowe'en!

NOTE: I've annotated this story, but I recommend you read it all the way through before reading the notes.

“Well, I’m all packed. I leave tomorrow morning,” said Jabe to his wife as he walked through the door into their small hut.

Henna smiled warmly.

“Just imagine! The High Kafka will be in Reegenz and I’m going to see him!”

“Yes, dear. I know,” his wife indulged.

Jabe sat down at the table and beamed at Henna. She brought his dinner to him and felt a stab of pleasure as he greedily devoured it.

“How long will you be gone?” she asked him casually.

“Mmmph…” Jabe swallowed. “At least three weeks. Reegenz is far away.”

“Oh,” said Henna. “Shim’s going to miss you something terrible.”

“Yes,” Jabe’s face became slightly overcast.

Henna watched her husband’s face for a moment and then spoke up again.

“Why don’t you take Shim with you?”

“Do you think so?” Jabe said, trying hard not to let any emotion show through. He’d been praying that Henna would let Shim go. Jabe had a special bond with his son, and Shim wanted to go just as badly as he did.

“Yes,” she smiled. “It would mean the world to him.”

Jabe smiled back and happily resumed his meal.

*          *          *          *          *

Two days into the journey, Shim fell ill and they were forced to stop traveling for three days while he recovered. As soon as Shim was well again, they doubled their pace, hoping to make up for lost time. But when they came to Hograss Forest, Jabe and Shim were still three days behind. As they began following the road that circumnavigated the forest, they came upon a swineherd tending his pigs.

“Ho, there!” cried Jabe.

The swineherd returned the greeting. He was an older man, with a bent back, and wispy gray hairs billowing around his head.

“Listen here, my good fellow,” said Jabe. “My son and I need to reach Reegenz within the next five days. Is there any way we might make our way through the forest and save ourselves some time?”

“Ya ain’t from ’round these parts, are ya?” asked the wizened old man.

Father and son both shook their heads.

“Mmmm,” the swineherd murmured. “It takes seven days t’ go ’round th’ forest iffn you’re in a hurry. But t’ go through th’ forest’d take ya four at th’ mos’. But I wouldn’t recommend that ya’ be goin’ through th’ forest. Evil things lurk therein.”

As he said this last part, the swineherd’s eyeballs rolled up in their sockets and his eyes squeezed shut for a moment. When he opened them again, they looked as they had before.

“Thank you,” said Jabe, staring at the man nervously. He reached his hand down and gripped Shim’s shoulder. “Let’s go, son.”

Jabe bid the old swineherd farewell and began walking down the road, again, propelling Shim slightly in front of him. Once they were out of sight of the old man, they stopped.

“Shim, if we go around the forest, we won’t make it in time to see the High Kafka.”

“Aw,” muttered Shim.

“But if we go through Hograss Forest, we can still make it to Reegenz in time. Should we do it?”

Shim nodded his head emphatically. Seeing the High Kafka was a once-in-a-lifetime event and he didn’t want to miss it.

So, Jabe and his son ventured into the forest. As they wandered deeper and deeper into the boreal depths, a slightly rotten, nauseating smell began to permeate the air. It was the kind of smell that is just detectable. It tickled the back of their brains rather than assaulting their noses. The trees grew thick and black in places, cutting off all sunlight. Decades of peat hung from the trees and moss littered their bark. Bright red and yellow mushrooms sprouted here and there, loudly announcing their toxicity. Slime molds glinted on fallen trees and flies buzzed in the air. As night settled in, the night took on a slight chill. It was late summer and the nights were starting to cool.

Jabe and Shim stopped and made camp for the night. They quickly built a small fire and threw down their blankets on the rough ground beside it. Jabe walked several hundred feet away from the fire and hung their food supply from a tree. The two ate a quick meal, Jabe stoked the fire, and then both went to sleep.

*          *          *          *          *

The next morning Jabe awoke slowly as sunlight dripped down through the tangle of tree branches overhead. The sheen of dew sparkled on the sparse tufts of grass. He quickly rose and roused his son.

“Shim, go fetch the food so I can make some breakfast.”

Grumbling, Shim climbed out from under his blanket. He knew better than to complain. If he did, he might find himself cooking his own breakfast. Drawing the blanket close, to ward off the morning chill, Shim trudged away from the camp. Jabe began relighting the fire, which had burned out during the night.

Moments later Shim came sprinting back into the camp.

“Dad! The food’s gone!”

“What?”

“The food! It’s gone!”

“Let me see.”

Jabe followed his son back to the tree where he’d stowed the food the night before. Just as his son had indicated, the food was gone. The rope was still tied to the tree, but the other end had been savagely torn. Jabe stared at it for a moment, unmoving.

“Well, son. It looks like we’ll have to skip breakfast this morning.”

Shim groaned. “Can’t we catch some rabbits or something?”

“Have you seen any rabbits in this forest?” asked Jabe.

Shim hesitated. “No.”

“Then, like I said, I don’t think we’ll be having any breakfast.”

Shim’s ten-year-old face crumpled. Two briny tears tried to battle their way out of his eyes and onto his cheeks, but he held them in. Jabe’s heart pinched him at the sight.

“Pack up your stuff,” he said gruffly. “So we can get out of here.”

With a heavy heart, Shim walked to his blanket and began rolling it up.

When they were all ready, Jabe checked the direction of the sun—just barely visible through the knot of trees—and set off towards Reegenz.

About mid-afternoon, the forest began to mellow. The thick gnarled trunks gave way to thinner, straighter trees with soft green leaves—aspens and the like—though no less sparse. A few small flowers began to show through the forest floor. Jabe stopped and dug up some sego lily bulbs [4], which they both ate ravenously.

As they sat munching their meal, Jabe said, “Tell you what, son.”

“What?”

“When we get to Reegenz, I’ll buy you some honeyed almonds.”

“Oh, yum!” sighed Shim. “Thanks, Dad.”

Jabe hugged his son and smiled.

That evening they made camp in a small clearing, about thirty feet wide. The sun quickly vanished, leaving them bathed in the silky light of the moon, which was only visible through the hole in the canopy left by the clearing. Jabe began making camp while Shim went out to gather firewood.

Suddenly there was a shout and Shim came bounding back to his father.

“Dad!”

“What is it,” asked Jabe with concern.

Shim leaped into his father’s arms. He was shivering violently, even though it was not yet cold.

“I heard something growl out there,” whispered Shim into his father’s chest.

“Oh, I’m sure it was nothing. Run along back and bring me some firewood.”

But Shim refused to go. Finally Jabe agreed to go with him. They gathered enough wood for the night without any incident. But every time a twig snapped, Shim leaped to his father’s side.

After a dinner of roasted sego lilies, Shim fell quickly to sleep. Jabe stayed up, watching his son in the dying firelight. He was about to settle down into his blankets when he noticed a pair of green eyes glowing out in the darkness. Startled, Jabe added wood to the fire.

The green eyes disappeared, but a few minutes later they were back. And they weren’t alone. Several pairs of red, yellow, and green eyes began appearing at the edge of the light. Some of them circled, looking for some way around the fire. Low growls began hovering on the air. Jabe said a prayer of thanks that Shim wasn’t awake for this. He stayed up all night adding wood to the fire. When the sun arose, the owners of the eyes fled.

*          *          *          *          *

Half an hour later, Shim woke up and began moping around. Jabe decided not to tell his son what had happened the night before—it would only upset him. Jabe killed a tiny sparrow with a stone and roasted it for Shim. He also found some shelf mushrooms that he knew to be safe. They ate these with more sego lily bulbs. When they finished eating, they continued their journey through the forest. As they left the clearing, Shim didn’t notice the ominous paw prints in the dirt…but Jabe did.

More sunlight showed through the canopy on this day than had on the two days previous, but a heavy shadow lay over Jabe’s heart. He couldn’t shake the feeling that they didn’t belong here. His feet jangled with each step as though they were loathe to touch the soil. After several miles, Shim began to complain that he couldn’t walk any longer. His whining seemed to increase exponentially, and finally Jabe consented to carry him piggy-back.

Barely audible, strange noises—noises Jabe had never heard escape the throat of an animal, domestic or wild—began to fill the air. Shim shivered against his back, but said nothing. Then he realized that one of those whines was coming from his son.

“Shim! What is it?”

A moan escaped Shim’s lips.

“Oh, Daddy! I’m afraid!”

“Afraid of what, son?”

“There’s something in the forest that wants to eat me.”

Jabe stopped.

“What makes you think that, son?”

“It told me. Last night, in a dream.”

Cold prickles shot up Jabe’s spine.

“Wh—what told you?”

“The hagris. He said you wouldn’t let him get me last night. But tonight he will.” Shim began sobbing.

Jabe set his son down and ruffled his hair.

“There now, Shim. It’s okay.”

“But the hagris is going to get me,” Shim cried. “I want to go back.”

“But Shim, we’re already half-way through the forest. It would take us just as long to reach Reegenz as it would to go home.”

“I don’t want to go to Reegenz, anymore,” said Shim, wiping his nose.

“On the way home, we can go around the forest. You want to see the High Kafka, don’t you?”

Shim looked at his father dubiously. “I don’t want the hagris to get me.”

Jabe hugged his son.

“It won’t. We’ll get out of this forest before it can.” Jabe held Shim out at arms length and looked him in the eye. “But we’ll have to run all day. Can you do it?”

Shim shook his head up and down, emphatically.

“Then let’s go.” Jabe stood and took Shim by the hand.

They began running. Jabe quickly checked his pace so that he was running at the same speed as his son. They ran for several hours. Jabe was surprised that Shim never seemed to tire. He pressed on with a worried and determined look on his face.

As they ran, Jabe realized that there was no way to tell how close they were to the edge. And the forest, which earlier seemed to reject them, now seemed to want to keep them in. The trees grew closer together and the branches hung lower, making it more difficult to run.

Then Shim tripped over a tree root. He tumbled to the ground with a yelp. Jabe stopped to help his son back to his feet. Shim took one step and fell down again, grabbing his ankle.

“What is it?” asked Jabe.

“I think I twisted my ankle,” Shim winced, touching it. Then his face clouded over. “Oh, no! The hagris! It’s going to get me, now!”

“No it won’t,” said Jabe, scooping up his son. He put Shim on his back, piggy-back style, and began to run again.

Jabe ran all morning and all afternoon, without stopping for lunch. He figured that they might make it out of the forest tonight if he ran hard enough. But the sunlight began to thin before the trees did. As dusk settled in, a new darkness entered into Jabe’s heart. They weren’t going to make it. Jabe stopped running and set Shim down.

“Dad! What’s the matter?” Shim asked in worried tones.

“It’s getting too dark to run. We’d better stop and make camp.”

“But Dad! We have to keep going! We have to get out of the forest tonight or the hagris will get me.”

“Shim, we don’t know how far away the edge of the forest is. What we need to do right now is gather firewood before the light is gone. If we build a big enough fire, nothing will bother us.”

“But Dad! The hag—”

“Shut up! We don’t have time for that! Start gathering wood! Now!” Jabe said, worry eating his heart. He stared at Shim for a few seconds. Then he turned, bent over, and began picking up deadwood. He could hear Shim sniffling in the darkness.

In about fifteen minutes, they had a sizable pile of wood. Jabe made sure that Shim was never out of his sight. He started a fire and stoked it until it was hot and blazing. Shim watched him as he lay out their blankets.

“Daddy, I’m afraid.”

Jabe was afraid, too.

“Don’t worry, son. I’ll stay up and make sure that nothing happens to you.”

“I love you, Dad,” Shim said and then snuggled down into his blanket. In spite of his fears, he fell quickly to sleep.

Jabe added a few more logs to the fire and sat down to watch. But the sleepless night before and a day of hard running had taken their toll on Jabe. A few minutes after he sat down, his chin dipped and he was fast asleep.

*          *          *          *          *

A desperate scream pierced the air. Jabe awoke with a start. He looked up to see the screaming and struggling form of his son, still wrapped in his blanket, being dragged out of the circle of light created by the fire.

With a shout of fury, Jabe scrambled to his feet. He leaped through the air, landing on his side with his arms outstretched. He felt his hands close around Shim’s arms. Jabe yanked with all his might and felt his son slip from the blanket and come tumbling back into his arms. He scooped up his wailing child and ran with him back to the protective heat of the fire.

When Shim finally caught his breath, he struck his father repeatedly on the chest. “You promised to keep watch. It almost got me,” he screamed in his childish, incredulous voice.

“I’m sorry, son. I was very tired.”

“It almost got me!” Shim wailed.

Jabe stood up and added more wood to the fire. Their wood was now half gone.

“Both of us will have to stay up. As long as we keep the fire going, we’ll be safe. And tomorrow we’ll be out of the forest for sure.”

Shim nodded through his tears. Jabe sat down next to their wood pile and Shim climbed into his lap. As the night wore on, they added more wood as needed. The red, green, and yellow eyes from the night before returned. Low growls and whines filtered out of the darkness to reach their ears.

They added more wood. But as the pile slowly diminished, morning showed no signs of arriving. With trembling hands, Jabe added the last piece of wood to the pile.

Shim whimpered. “We don’t have enough wood, Dad. The fire’s going to burn out.”

“Have faith, son. Hopefully morning will get here before it does.”

But as they waited, there was no sign of morning, and the fire slowly began to die. As the light of the fire faded, the eyes came nearer and the growls grew louder. Shim began fidgeting in his father’s lap.

“It’s going to get me,” he whispered harshly.

Soon all flames disappeared, leaving only glowing embers. The eyes were very near, now. Jabe decided that they had to do something.

“Shim, when I tell you, we have to run, okay?”

“Okay, Dad.”

They both stood. Jabe bent down and plunged his hands into the red-hot coals. His skin sizzled. He grabbed two handfuls of the embers and flung them out into the forest. Several surprised yelps issued forth from the darkness and the eyes disappeared.

“Now!” screamed Jabe. He grabbed Shim’s hand, wincing against the pain of the burns, and ran with him out into the darkness.

An angry growl erupted behind them and heavy footfalls began to follow them. Jabe ran as fast as he could, practically dragging Shim behind him, who was wailing hysterically. Dim moonlight shone down through the treetops, barely illuminating the way.

Suddenly Shim was ripped from his grasp. Jabe jerked to a halt and turned back, his heart scarcely beating.

“Shim! Shim, where are you!”

He heard nothing but growls and whining.

“Shim! Shim!” he tried again.

A horrific scream sounded to his right and he ran towards it. He’d only gone a few steps when something struck him in the back. Pain blossomed in his spine and traveled up to his head. When it reached the base of his skull, Jabe collapsed unconscious to the ground.

*          *          *          *          *

Early the next morning, Jabe awoke. Dried blood caked his shirt and back. He painfully and groggily rose to his feet. Memories of the night before came flooding back to him.

“Shim! Shim, where are you?” But he knew it was no use. Shim was gone. Tears welled up in his eyes, but Jabe held them back.

He began walking. After about a few hundred yards Jabe came to a clearing - the forest had ended. Shining bitterly in the distance was Reegenz. Now the tears began to flow.

Jabe didn’t bother going to see the High Kafka. He just returned to the road and made his way back home. A week and a half later, he trudged into the house he’d deserted three weeks before.

“I’m back,” he said, sadly.

Henna was never the same after learning of the death of her only child. Some say she became unhinged. Jabe was never the same, either. Whenever someone would mention Reegenz or the High Kafka, he would begin to weep. Neither of them went to worship services after that.

Oddest of all, Jabe always seemed to walk with a limp. But there was nothing wrong with his legs. When he finally died, the secret was revealed. As they dressed his corpse for the funeral, they found an object imbedded in his back. It pressed against his spinal cord, causing him pain when he walked. It was a hideous, almost human-looking fingernail.


Notes:

[1] His first name is pronounced dih-LOSS (mouse over for IPA).

[2] Read my first horror story from that year at my post Lightbearer.

[3] I think he called his story "Pink Bear", which doesn't sound that scary at all. But the story itself was terrifying. Unfortunately it's not included in his published book of short stories (Folk and campfire stories: A how-to book on the told story).

[4] Sego lily bulbs were eaten by Native Americans and LDS Pioneers but the practice has since diminished. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calochortus nuttallii.

Image attributions:

Sego Lillies is by Stan Shebs, available at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Calochortus nuttallii 5.jpg.

Embers is by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen, available at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Embers 01.JPG.

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