Jack took a deep breath as he surveyed the view around him. Autumn bathed the countryside with its rustic splendor. The windswept trees were ablaze with various shades of red, orange, and gold. Nearby, the constant babble of a mountain stream played in his ears. The undergrowth consisted mostly of rhododendron, laurels, and other small shrubs which lined the old trail. To him, the Blue Ridge Mountains were breathtaking at this time of year. Even the air seemed cleaner, although it bore the faint, earthy scent of mold, mildew, and damp moss. He watched, amazed as a flock of grouse took to the air and spread their wings for the journey to warmer climates.
The trail, on which Jack had been traveling, took a narrow turn around a mixed copse of ancient timber and pine. Jack remembered coming here as a boy, and how he had always wanted to return once he had gotten older. The steady gibber of the stream was soon replaced by the faint roar of a waterfall in the distance. The gentle rush of sound washed over him and served to remind him of why he had come to this all but forgotten place.
By comparison, this was much more relaxing than the everyday hustle and bustle of his job in Hickory. Here he could take things at his own pace; no phones rang, no one demanded his attention here or there. No, it was just him and the trail. An acute breeze swept though the woods stirring his hair and sent an invigorating chill through his body. Jack was so lost in the moment that, he didn’t notice the pair of squirrels until he happened upon them. Spooked by The man’s sudden appearance, they scrambled up the nearest trees. Jack couldn’t help but give a lighthearted laugh as they chattered at him for disturbing their work in gathering the various foodstuffs they needed for the coming winter.
The waterfall was just as he had remembered it. Its long stream formed a misty veil as the water fell from a rocky knoll some eighty feet overhead. The clearing was bathed in a fine white spray giving the whole an almost dream like sense of peace and tranquility. A thin layer of moisture tickled his face, melting away the cares of the world as he became lost with the nostalgic memories of his childhood, when days like this were spent at this little old clearing- just he and his father, who would bring a picnic or build a small fire by the basin where they would roast hot dogs, relax and just enjoy the day.
Jack sat down as the welcome thoughts of yester year came over him. He inhaled the fresh, moist air becoming more relaxed with each thought. Soon his mind was carried away on the breeze, taking him to the days of his youth. Once more he was a boy, travelling the trails with his father. His spirit was free, without worry, and his mind drifted over adventures where kings and knights traveled through enchanted forests such as this to meet the fairy queen who would endow them with knowledge of the ancients. The waterfall echoed through the woods around him as he played out the adventures by the water’s edge. Jack basked in the cold mist which ran down his face in tiny rivulets. A great longing filled his being; oh, how he loved this place. He could not recall the many times he wished he never had to leave this magical glen. The gathering moisture in his clothes sent a chill through his body, but he didn’t care. Above him birds flit through the boughs of the towering trees. Leaves fell around him, snatched from their braches by the gentle breeze which announced the approaching nightfall. In all his happiness, one thing still nagged at him; he was very cold.
Jack’s eyes popped open as he sat up in amazement. Had it all been a dream? He looked around as the icy beads of water ran down his face. Once he had regained his senses, Jack realized that he was still in the same place he had sat down to rest. Much like in the dream a frigid evening breeze chilled him through his dampened clothes. Everything was the same as he had last seen it. The echo of the waterfall now filled the surrounding woodland, seeming to grow louder as evening drew on. The cheerful songs of birds getting ready for their autumn migration had been replaced by the steady pulse of crickets and katydids. An owl, somewhere nearby, sounded its hollow call. The whole area was prepared for nightfall save for Jack. He silently cursed himself for both dozing off, and not packing a flashlight for those “just in case” purposes. He glanced at the waterfall once more as night settled over the land, and then turned to start back down the trail.
The sound of water was soon swallowed by the surrounding darkness. Jack struggled to remember all the paths he took to get here. Had it been daylight, or if he had had some sort of light source, he would have been able to se the usual landmarks that had guided his steps earlier that day. But, as it was, he might as well have bee walking blindfolded. Overhead a lonely crow split the silence with its raspy, if mournful, cry. If Jack hadn’t known any better, he’d have thought that the ebon bird was mocking his distress with its wicked laughter. Again Jack cursed himself for his incompetent lack of preparations as the trail forked in several locations. He struggled feverishly to remember which way he had come from. In one fit of scolding himself, he dashed his foot against a tree’s root which sent him sprawling to the ground. The impact winded Jack, but other than a few scrapes at the back of his palms, he was unharmed. As he dusted himself off, Jack’s heart sank, for somewhere in the distance, a mournful howl filled the air. His blood turned to ice as several more howls answered the first.
“Wolves!” Jack shook his head as the thought raced through his mind. The last thing that he needed to hear was wolves. He knew that wolves were rare in North Carolina, but he never thought that he would ever have to worry about them. He stumbled over the low brush as he picked up his pace. The trail had quickly become the last thing on Jack’s mind as all he wanted to do was put distance between him and the ghastly howls. The once peaceful trail now seemed to be filled with a malevolence undreamed of in Jack’s youth. Skeletal limbs rent his clothing as they ripped and tore at him. The various hardwoods had become towering black sentinels whose great limbs had blotted out the night sky. Dreadful groans filled the forest in accompaniment to the terrible howls which seemed to pursue his every step. There was a flash of cold followed by the fiery sting of a sharp scratch as something unseen raked his upper cheek.
After he had been running for what seemed like forever, Jack stopped to catch his breath. He looked around in hopes to bet a bearing on where he might be. It didn’t take him but a moment to realize that he was lost. The wind had grown colder, making him shiver in his damp clothing. The howls seemed in fast pursuit of him as they drew closer. Just as he thought all hope was lost, a new solution arose in the distance, for in the woods ahead he saw the faint flicker of a fire. He was immediately relieved to see that someone else was here, in the woods, so he made for the light.
“Hopefully, it’s campers who can point me back to the main road,” he mumbled as he trudged toward the campfire. The sound of singing soon played upon his ears as he approached the firelight. From where he was, Jack could see silhouetted figures dancing around but, only as passing glimpses. As he drew near the edge of the camp, he stopped, amazed at what he was witnessing. The campers weren’t campers at all but, Cherokee Indians. There were no tents, wigwams, or any other shelter as he would have imagined. Instead, there were only bedrolls fashioned out of what appeared to be animal skins. The Indians had a peace about them, uncommon to most people he’d encountered. The music stopped as everyone turned their heads toward Jack. An involuntary shudder shook his body at the sudden focus of attention. Their leader; a man with snow white hair, and who appeared to be in his early sixties, motioned for him to enter.
The Cherokee welcomed him into their camp with open arms. They offered him fresh meat and drink, as well as a seat by the fire. Until this moment he did not realize how hungry he had become. The meat was tender and had been roasted with a variety of natural herbs which made its full flavor stand out in his mouth. He washed it down with a concoction which consisted of juices from the many berries and fruits of the area. As he took it all in, a small group of performers gathered around the fire to relate the tales of heroes long gone. Jack watched amazed at how well the storytellers used both speech and dance to bring their legendary heroes and great spirits to life.
The chieftain had several doeskin blankets brought out to Jack. He told Jack to rest and be still for the night, for he was their guest on this cold autumn’s eve. Jack did as the chieftain bade, all the while, he continued to watch as the ancient legends and stories unfolded right before his eyes. Eventually he began to grow weary as his sight became dim. The sound of the Cherokee music soothed him like a lullaby, taking him further into the realm of mists, where the borders of dreams and reality blurred beyond recognition.
Soon Jack’s thoughts started to drift, taking him away from the firelight and into the woods. In his mind, he was a deer, prancing through the forest. Cool streams dampened his coat as he passed through their swift currents. Leaves swished beneath his feet only to resettle, in their shuffled drifts, behind him. The frosty air felt good against his face as he crested the top of a hill. He couldn’t help the chill that ran through his body at the disturbing sound of howls coming from behind him. There were many wolves; too many to count! He rounded the bend of a rocky knoll just in time to see a large furry silhouette leap at him from the shadows; its sinewy maw open wide, with sharp teeth seeking to bite!
Jack awoke from the dream with a start to find the doeskin blankets still wrapped tightly about him. The dim glow of the morning light peered through the mists. The air was cold, crisp, and damp from the heavy dew which dripped from the many plants and leaves that surrounded him. He stretched hard, unable to restrain the groan which escaped his lips, and then looked around to thank his hosts for their hospitality. However, to his surprise, the clearing contained no signs of anyone ever having been there. When he looked closely, the only footprints in the clearing, other than his own, were those of nearly a dozen wolves. Unable to understand what had happened, Jack picked up the blankets and left as quickly as his feet could carry him.
©2000 W. R. Frady