Jerrold smiled, showing her all his teeth. Elizabeth was paralyzed by the sight. It wasn’t just the ferocity of his smile that made her feel detached from her own body, it was the stains that were between his teeth. They were dark red, just like the stains on his shirt.
“What evil have you done?” she whispered.
“You’ll know soon enough,” he said.
He began to move towards her.
Elizabeth gathered up the folds of her skirt and pulled a quick knot into the fabric so it wouldn’t trip her up.
“Go now, Jerrold. If you run now you can be halfway to Halifax before they mount a serious chase. You leave us be and we’ll let you have that head start,” Elizabeth said. She didn’t mean a word of it, but she had lied to Jerrold before and thought it was worth a shot.
“I just want to reunite you and your sisters with your parents, sweet Beth. Take the gift of my hand.”
He reached out his hand and she saw that it was cracked with drying blood. The hand he kept at his side held the sailor’s knife. That was the real gift that he wanted to give her.
“Never,” Elizabeth said. She considered her options. If they were following orders, her sisters would be up the hill due east, hiding in the place where the rock ledge poked through the thin dirt. Their father had never bothered to clear the trees around that ledge. He didn’t trust that land for crops or cows. Jerrold didn’t know all the cracks and crevices of those rocks, but the girls did.
Elizabeth would run and veer south to lead Jerrold away from that place.
He was slowly stalking towards her, as if she wouldn’t run as long as he moved carefully enough.
“Last chance,” she said. “I’m going to run into Foster’s field, stick to the edge of the river, and I’ll be all the way to the church in an hour. That’s how much freedom you have left unless you leave right this instant.”
“Take my gift,” he said with another chilling smile.
Elizabeth turned and ran.
She heard Jerrold thundering after her.
Her steps were light and carefully placed. She swept up the path and through the thicket like a ghost. Jerrold sounded like he was tripping on every root and colliding with every tree. In no time, she could hear that her lead was opening up. Now fifty paces behind her, Elizabeth heard Jerrold exclaim with a frustrated cry. She paused to catch her breath.
One spring a crazed moose had stumbled out of the woods with swarms of biting flies circling its head. The beast had heaved its dying breaths with blood dripping from its mouth, utterly exhausted. That’s the way that Jerrold looked. He had already spent his energy and Elizabeth had only reached the edge of the property.
“Come on, Jerrold. Bring me your gift,” she called.
His head bobbed as he panted and spat.
She took a few steps back towards him.
He turned and looked back in the direction of the house. Elizabeth’s veins were shot through with ice. If he went back now, there was no telling where her sisters would be.
“Jerrold! Come back. Come show me your gift.”
He was turning to walk back towards the house.
She took a few steps towards him and froze. Her mother had always told her that her greatest strength was her ability to see both sides of an argument.
“That’s the key to your empathy,” her mother said. “You can hold two things in your mind at once.”
At the moment, it didn’t feel like a strength to Elizabeth. She had two ideas in her head—go back to distract Jerrold so he wouldn’t find her sisters, or keep running until she found help. Her sisters should be able to hide for a couple of hours until help could come riding back on their fastest horses.
She had almost made her decision when Jerrold called.
“Audrey! Carol! Margaret! Your sister tripped and I caught her. Come say goodbye before I slit her throat.”
Elizabeth held her breath and heard her youngest sister scream. Apparently, Jerrold had caught his breath enough to run. He was headed for the rock ledge. Elizabeth sprinted after him. When he got back to the river path, he paused again. Elizabeth kept running. She didn’t know what she would do when she caught him.
“Girls? Where are you?”
Margaret screamed once more and Jerrold started into the woods.
“No!” Elizabeth yelled. “I’m right here, Jerrold. Come to me.”
He turned and stopped her with his hungry smile.
Elizabeth took a step back. Her foot rammed into a rock and she stumbled before crashing to the ground. A stick tore a long hole in her sleeve and scraped her skin.
They both heard Audrey’s voice from up the hill. She was standing in the middle of the path with her hands clasped behind her back like this was all a game.
“Jerrold! Come find me. I’m even closer.”
Audrey slipped behind a tree with a laugh.
“I’ll give you all my gift,” Jerrold said, slashing his knife in the direction that Audrey had disappeared. The distraction had given Elizabeth enough time to scramble to her feet, but she was unsteady. Jerrold began to pace towards her again.
Carol appeared from behind a rock. She was only five paces from Jerrold.
“I’m right here, Jerrold. Where’s your gift?”
With an animal grunt he lunged towards her. Carol slipped back behind the rock and from her vantage point Elizabeth saw her sister run down the hill, using the rock as cover. When Jerrold finally came around to the other side of the boulder, Carol was gone.
Elizabeth took the opportunity to duck behind one of the giant oaks. She held perfectly still and listened for Jerrold’s frustrated scream. A moment later, Margaret called to him.
“Jerrold, we’re over here. Please come give us our gifts.”
The game continued until the sun faded. It was easy to track him as he stumbled around the woods in the dying light. Jerrold made a racket with each step. The girls called and hid. They lured him and then froze. As he tired himself out, he began to trip and stumble more often. Limping and panting, he leaned against one of the rock walls that the girls liked to climb. At the top, Audrey stood holding the biggest rock she could lift.
“Girls?” Jerrold yelled. “Come get…”
He didn’t seem to have the strength to finish.
“From our parents,” Audrey called as she dropped the rock.
He looked up as the rock came down. It slipped by his face as close as a razor and cracked through his shoulder. Jerrold collapsed to his knees. The knife fell out of his hand when he tried to raise his arm.
Turning up towards the darkening sky, he screamed.
Audrey went to find another rock. When she returned to the ledge and looked down, she couldn’t see him in the shadows. She stood there until Elizabeth’s hand landed on her shoulder and pulled her back.
“Listen,” Elizabeth said.
Just above the sounds of the night, they could hear the desperate cries of the horses. When they reached the flat part of the trail, they found their sisters. All four girls looked across the creek to where the barn was ablaze in the night.
“Will it catch the house?” Carol asked.
“The wind is going the wrong way,” Audrey said.
Elizabeth clenched her jaw. It was the kind of lie they always said to Carol to ease her mind.
“It doesn’t matter,” Margaret said. “That’s not our home anymore.”
“What do you mean?” Carol asked.
“This is our home now. We’re a part of these woods,” Margaret said.
None of them spoke for a few seconds.
“Come on,” Elizabeth said. “We have a long walk ahead of us in the dark. Sooner started, sooner finished.”
The oldest sister herded them all into a group and pointed them in the direction of the path that led to Foster’s field. Audrey was in the lead and Elizabeth brought up the rear. After only a few paces, Audrey stopped dead in her tracks. The sisters fanned out to either side of her. They all saw what she saw.
Ahead, the trees closed in over the path. Their way was lost to complete darkness. Continuing forward would be an act of pure faith. That’s not what had stopped Audrey though.
What stopped Audrey was the break in the blackness. Hovering above the path, roughly the height of an average man, two yellow lights gleamed at them like eyes. As they watched, they saw a glowing, hungry smile appear just below.
A voice whispered to them on the wind. “I haven’t showed you my gift yet.”
# # #
Nobody found any trace of Jerrold or the girls after that night. Their story was reconstructed and told by a local woman who had the gift of hearing the voices of the dead.
Decades after, local children invented a game. Walking on that same path on a night like this, they learned that if they called to the sisters, the girls would answer. The girls had become a part of the woods.
# # #
That’s the story I like to tell after we’ve had dinner, lit a bonfire, and then walked through the woods.
During the walk, when we’re deep in the dark, I’ll ask everyone to stop and we’ll call for the girls one at a time. If everyone holds their breath and stays perfectly quiet, we always hear an answer.