There’s a fog-stuffed path near my house, where all you can see is the ghosts of tree trunks and dense underbrush, the brambles and thorn bushes, the thickets packed with bird nests and slimy things. The mist swirls like stagnant smoke and the trees make an umbrella over it, shield it from the greedy sun trying to burn it off and expose the path of pine needles and dead leaves and soft, muffling peat. That path is at the edge of a flat where my great-great granddaddy built the house. He flattened out and cleared an area where trees weren’t too dense, where the hillside wasn’t too deep and where he’d have a view of the leaves changing in fall time. Off the front porch and down the rough-hewn half-log steps, down the gravel-coated walk and to the left you go, and there, between the trunks of two mighty trees, older than our country maybe, older than anyone can remember, the path sort of sneaks up and drops down a slope into the mist.
Don’t matter what time of year it is, either. Path’s always misty, always buried in that wispy sort of ground fog that swirls and move like it’s alive, but never dissipates or thins. In the night it glows, like snow in the dark, reflecting every bit of light there is and maybe shining some that isn’t. It’s hard to explain; it’s like the fog has its own light, somehow, and makes the gray, shadowy shapes of familiar things seem menacing, malicious, strange and mysterious.
Things seem to move in that fog, but you can’t ever be sure. You can stare down the path if you want — stare until your eyes cross, it won’t do no good. Nothing will be any more clear than if you just take a passing glance. Can’t see more than fifty feet down there anyway. The tree roots that arch their backs up to hook unsteady feet from the padded path, the treacherous brambles that snake out to snag bare ankles or pant cuffs, they all hide in the thick roiling cloud, and my granddaddy and my daddy told me to stay clear of that path if I didn’t want to break a leg.
I tried going down there a couple of times. Once, when I was about seven, I started down the path. Autumn time, it was, and I was on my way into the house from the bus stop where the old Blue Jay rattled to a stop long enough for me to hop out and scamper the half-mile up the hillside to our house. I set down my book bag and stared into that mist, drifting and teasing around in that hollow, and somewhere off a bird called. Nothing else made a sound, and those roiling coils of fog just teased and played, so innocent. I looked around at the leafy green, gold and yellow trees, all with their dark bark and baring branches, all watching me.
I set one foot down on the path, and then I stepped forward, and the mist was right there, just out of my reach, just ahead of me, hiding the path and begging me to come seek, to come see, to come explore. And I wondered if daddy would get mad at me for going down there, just to see … just to see what might be down there, where the path went. I asked him once, what was at the end of the path, and he smiled and tousled my hair. “Nothin’,” he said. “Just more woods, and finally the crick.”
But something flashed, just for a second, in his eyes. Something I’d not seen before, and don’t know if I’ve seen it since. I can’t be sure, now. I was only seven, and anyway, what’s a kid know about his old man really? They hide their secret things from friends and family alike, and no man wants to seem like he’s not able to handle his own house. But for that one minute, if you asked me now, if I saw it again today, I’d say for that one instant, my daddy was scared.
But I wondered if I’d get in trouble because he might’ve been afraid. He never did say not to go down there. He never did tell me I couldn’t walk the path. But something always stopped me. Something cold, clammy, something with slick fingers that make a slopping, sliding sound when they slither through your gut and touch your spine, wrap their chilling fingers around it and squeeze. Those things that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up when you don’t know why, the things that make you turn left and take the long way around that strange feeling in the road ahead, those things that make you pick up the phone and call your ma in the middle of the day for no good reason. Those things that make you stop with furrowed brow and listen, and never quite tell you why.
Those things stopped me. Those things kept me from plunging down that path and following it to the creek, to see where it goes, to see where it ends and comes out.
I think my daddy knew those things would stop me from doing it. And I think he knew if he told me I couldn’t go down there I’d be sure to. So he just smiled and patted my head and told me it went through the woods to the creek. And he and granddaddy would laugh and say I’d best not go if I didn’t want a broken leg.
“Daddy, why’s the mist always there? Why don’t it burn off like morning mist and fog?”
“It’s a hollow,” he said, slow and thoughtful, “and there’s a crick beyond it. Mayhaps it just holds onto the mist. Reckon the trees help, too, shadin’ it all the time.”
“Who made the path, daddy?”
“Nobody made it,” he grinned, “it’s not a real path for walkin’. Just a natural one running down the hill. Like a goat trail. Maybe critters made it.” And he tussled my hair again.
So I stood there that autumn day, with one foot on that path and my wide-eyes like saucers staring down into the misty hollow. I wondered what was down there, and I strained my eyes hard to see, but the drifting wisps rolled and tumbled, slow and oozy, like thick molasses in winter. Things faded in and out of my sight and my eyes played tricks.
I eased my other foot down, with my body angled back so I could bolt in an instant if something came up at me. I didn’t know what would. But I’d be ready if it did. I crept the other foot farther in, where the mist ran over my ankle and sort of swallowed my shoe up. Then I slid the other foot down there, too, just a little farther down, wading in sideways like a crab.
I screamed when the peat and dead leaves and pine needles skidded away from under my foot and I fell hard on my hip, then slid on my backside down the path before I stopped. I don’t remember how I scrabbled back up the hill and tore through those two guardian trees standing at the entrance of the hollow, but I remember slamming the door to the house closed and leaning back on it, chest heaving and eyes shut, feeling the rough door slabs on my palms and smelling the good, safe scent of my house.
That was the first trip I took down the path.
It took me a while before I moved away from the door. I heard something crunch and rumble outside and knew my daddy was home. And I waited until I heard his truck motor cough and die and the tinny metallic slam of the door before I eased off. And when he swung that front door wide and stood in the entry, lunch pail in one hand and the other reaching for his hat, I watched his smile drain away when he saw the look on my face.