For the most part, Americans don’t believe in ghosts. No, we tend to be skeptical about these things. Until I had my own run-in with an unexplained shadowy visitor in Japan, I’d probably still feel the same way. It took only the one experience to turn me from skeptic to believer, but I had had inklings of the unexplained long before meeting the ghost of Fortunato. I believe there is something to all this apparition stuff, although I have no idea what its true nature actually is.
Filipinos believe in spirits implicitly. They have no doubt; they simply accept them as fact, and I can see why. They have so many stories about ghostly encounters its no wonder people here believe in them unquestioningly. Ghosts come up here in conversation all the time, and I think that’s what has brought on this particular story about an evil patch of woods out behind our home in Central Southern Michigan.
My first run-in with the “unexplained” took place in the early 70s. Back then, we lived on Beyer Road, a quiet lane of asphalt just a quarter mile west of the constant hum of I-75. Our home was close to the middle of the state on the eastern side of a block of land almost exactly a mile square. Church Street formed the western side of this square from Beyer Road, the eastern side. Church Street was one of the main drags leading to the center of our town, Birch Run. Back then; only a fraction of the perimeter of this square mile of land was developed with homes and businesses. For the most part it consisted of fields of corn, beans, sugar beets and wheat, along with several large swathes of woods, the whole thing laced with drainage culverts lined with trees and thick brush.
Forming the back property line of our family’s little half acre, was a small winding stream that bisected our square mile. This ancient creek, we called "the ditch," passed through one end of a fairly large patch of woods located directly behind us, not 200 yards from our back boundary. A field stood between us and the abovementioned rectangular section of woods. This field was never planted twice with the same crop, the farmer planting anything from corn, wheat, and beans in it. ..
The first time I ever experienced “the feeling” was in this seemingly ordinary wood lot not 250 yards from the back of our house. I passed through this area -- grown thick with oak, maple and ash -- virtually everyday, walking home in the afternoons from my grandmother’s place in town. Her house was my base of operations for my paper route. It took about an hour to deliver papers after school, depending on the thickness of that day’s papers. So, after dropping off the last of my 80 to 90 newspapers, I made the two-plus-mile nightly trudge across Church Street, through the fields behind church row, over the railroad tracks and multitude of farmer’s culverts, before passing along the edges of several fields and through two wood lots back to my home.
I hoofed it through those parts almost every day for over four years. The only place I ever felt spooked was in a particular PART of a patch of woods within sight of the back windows of our two-story home. I first felt something wasn’t right with that place on a pitch-black Sunday morning. It was just past 4 a.m. and I needed to get to town to make my deliveries. Usually, on weekends, I spent Friday and Saturday nights at my grandma’s, but for some forgotten reason I didn’t that night.
From the warm bosom of our house I made my way through and over frozen snow more than a foot deep. It made for terrible footing; every step broke through the frozen top inch, while I struggled to pull my other foot out of the 9-inch deep hole it had formed. I struggled mightily with this broken-gaited walking, each exhalation of labored breath formed a cloud of thick white exhaust. I chugged toward the back of our property to the steep-banked ditch, the bottom of which was at its wintertime water level of about a foot.
My goal was to cross the 8-foot deep ditch into the farmer's field. It wasn’t quite cold enough for the slow moving ditch water to completely solidify, so I carefully struggled over its slick surface, trying to step mostly on a half-submerged fallen log. I slipped more than once, each time poking large cracking holes in the thin ice. Through each hole icy water welled up and darkened the covering layer of frozen snow. I felt a hint of dampness seep into my boots and I groaned; wet feet in the cold is not helpful.
After the perils of the ditch crossing, it was comparatively easy walking from there to the woods over the expanse of snow-crusted field. As I walked, I was glad for the still air; it was miserable enough without having an icy wind to contend with. I approached the tall leafless trees and inexplicably began to feel uneasy. Without moon and stars to see by I felt my way by memory along the edge of the field towards the spot where a huge rotten tree had flattened the ancient encircling barbed wire fence. I paused for a moment before attempting to cross into the blacker black of the winter-dormant copse of trees.
No matter the season, it always seemed like I was crossing into another world or dimension when I crossed into that section of woods. In the summer it felt hotter in there; in winter, it seemed more frigid. There were times when I walked around instead of crossing through that dark place of trees; but it cost me ten or fifteen more minutes, so usually I took the direct path through its oaks and maples. On that particular dark and frigid morning, I needed to get to town quickly. So, I took a deep breath and plunged into the blackness, my feet skittering, my mittened hands blindly reaching out to pluck at and hold away clinging dead blackberry canes, always thickly prevalent at the edge of fields and tree lots.
My efforts took me within the void of trees, their upright trunks and horizontal branches all but invisible in the engulfing blackness. I walked uncertainly towards what I knew to be the other side of the lot, a seemingly impossible distance of some 150 yards. I walked unsteadily, holding one hand out protectively in front of my face to keep from being poked and scratched by unseen branches. I can’t say it was dark in there since dark does not nearly describe how dark it truly was in those woods that morning. I might as well have had my eyes closed for all the good they were. Around me I heard the furtive commotion of creatures – it could have been fox, deer, squirrel, field mice, or owls – I had no way of knowing . I was familiar with these nighttime noises and usually it didn’t affect me, but that time it did.
From the moment I left the open field and crossed over the fallen log, I began to feel uneasiness turn into alarm, before unexpectedly crashing into full-blown panic; and I couldn’t figure out why. I was sure somebody or something was there with me, and it was NOT a friendly presence. My spine jangled with fear; I could feel the hair all over my body stand straight up from my skin. I stopped in my tracks and tried to calm down. I figured I must be doing this to myself, that all of this panic was self-induced, but was it? I had never felt anything like it before even in similar situations, so why now? I slowed down and continued to feel my way through the stand of dormant trees. It became easier to walk the further in I proceeded, the trees being larger and further apart, the undergrowth more sparse.
I gave up trying to reacquire normalcy; for some reason I knew I couldn’t do it. I continued to feel an icy presence about me, even INSIDE me, and it wasn’t being caused by the bitter cold either. It was something else, and I could not shake it. I gritted my teeth and continued to tramp determinedly through the snow, making my way through the thick stand, before gradually, as I almost reached the barbed wire hemming in the west side of the tree lot, I began to feel my normal calmness reassert itself. I shook my head, not believing how frightened I had just been. I was certain the whole thing was my own imagination working on my mind. I sought to put the whole embarrassing incident out of my mind.
Over the years, I passed through "the woods" countless times, and I’d like to say that I never experienced that sinister sensation again, but I can’t. From '71 to '75 I poked amongst its trees and found all sorts of intriguing evidence of man’s having lived and worked in its confines. I found buried trash pits with 80 and 100 year-old glass bottles along with lots of other items from America's past. I discovered running through a small meadow, long-unused irrigation furrows overgrown with grass. The meadow itself was an area unexplainably free of trees. I used to camp there, and never felt uneasy. It was always in that ONE place where I had entered the trees at the northeast corner near the giant windfall – THAT’S where the presence seemed to be centered.
A normal person would just avoid a place that caused such foreboding, but I was drawn to it. Besides, that area provided one of the most beautiful displays I’ve ever seen in the wild. Right in the middle of “the presence” spot was a depressed area where the winter snowmelt formed a shallow oval pool that would stay wet well into May. It was in that area, sprinkled with extra large oaks and maples, where the most delightful patch of bloodroot I have ever seen burst up through the leaf mold every Spring. Enhancing its appearance as a wild garden, large masses of mayapples and springbeauty added their sublime charm to the setting.
It was amazing...I’ve never seen more bloodroot in one place. Normally, in Michigan, bloodroot beds cover at most a few square feet, but in that damp open space beneath leafing maples and majestic oaks, the distinctive white flowers and orange-veined leaves covered an area as large as a small home. It was a veritable bloodroot field, and it called to me like a siren. Yet, every time I went to admire the unique loveliness of it, I FELT something unseen and unsettling. My spine tingled, and the hair on my arms and back of my neck stood up. Even during the most brilliantly lit summer's day, I was overcome with dread in that place. It was a frightening physiological and mental phenomenon that worsened the longer I lingered, and did not pass until I moved on.
Over the years, I simply came to accept that I was going to be negatively affected by that place. And then, one autumn evening, just before sundown, I passed through it yet again, perhaps for the three hundredth time, fighting off smothering panic and, as usual, never quite understanding why. I had felt “it” quite strongly that evening, and it caused me to pass through the dreaded area as quickly as I could. Heading for home, I traveled west-to-east so that as I came out of “the woods,” what little that was left of the day’s sun was blotted out by the thick stand of trees through which I’d just passed. Home was but a stroll away, along the edge of just 200 yards of a harvested cornfield, and then a short hop over the muddy stream.
Halfway to the end of the field of dead and windblown cornstalks, I shook off the last of the creepy sensation of “the woods” and halted. Something made me turn and look back at the straight line of trees marking the edge of the alarming rectangle of hardwoods. My eyes gazed from left to right, along the 100 yards of eastern tree line before coming to rest at the dreaded dark northern corner of the trees, which as a whole looked bleak and forlorn in the failing November light.
In the blackness from whence I had just come, I was shocked to see movement. I peered intently at “this something,” darkness moving within darkness. It passed from right to left, then stopped, then moved again to the right a bit. It wasn’t an animal – it didn’t move like one, and it certainly wasn’t human; no person could possibly move that smoothly and noiselessly in that nasty section of thick thorny blackberry vines.
I could feel that the moving black force had sensed that I was observing it, and in knowing, caused itself to fade from my view. The icy dreaded feeling was back in its usual spot under the back of my neck, in the general vicinity between my shoulder blades. I grinned and waved with bravado at the thing in the woods.
Before spinning on heel and heading for the warmth and light of family and hearth, I yelled defiantly: “See you tomorrow!” Then, turning away, I murmured, “…Whatever you are.”