Brian C. Petroziello
How can I explain my actions of the last few days? But explain them I must. Why I have driven half way across the country without more than a few moments rest; why I called the Northeastern Kentucky University from a payphone in a rest stop in Illinois, and babbled my resignation from my assistant professorship in Anthropology; why I dropped the love of my life at the front door of a hospital emergency room in Iowa, in a near catatonic state, and fled like a thief in the night. I must recount these things, and more, or I will go mad, if I am not already.
I managed to contact my old college roommate, Frank Abbott, and arranged to meet him at a small bar near Boulder, Colorado. I recognized his car as I barreled into the gravel parking lot, scattering stones as I turned into an empty space between cars. I fairly bolted through the door, seeking the safety of people, and the security of a bottle of alcohol. I spied him seated at a back booth, as I had asked him to do.
"Abbott, thanks for coming, especially on such short notice," I said, as I slid onto the bench next to him. "I didn't know where else to turn. I must look a fright -- I haven't shaved in a week -- I haven't slept in nearly three days. Pardon the coughing, I am not sick, merely rundown. Sorry, but I do need to have a drink. You must think I've been here at the bar all day, but this is my first. Damn--can't stop my hands from shaking. Even using both hands doesn't seem to help. Aaaaah. That tastes good." The words flowed uncontrollably.
"Slow down, Finch," he said. I know this place. People here don't trust strangers very much, and I'm a regular here. My God man, you look like the devil himself was chasing you."
"It could be, a devil at least. I don't know where to start."
"John, the beginning is usually recommended," Abbott said calmly -- as if that alone could calm me.
"You know, after we graduated, I found a position at Northeastern Kentucky University as an associate professor in anthropology. I taught Appalachian studies. That culture always fascinated me -- it was the theme of my thesis -- and Northeastern Kentucky was the perfect place for me to be, right in the middle of the laboratory as it were. N.K.U. is located in the town of Jamesboro, about an hour northeast of Harlan. Things were going quite well. My classes were not a burden, and on the weekends I could spend time in the surrounding hills and hollers, talking to the locals, taking notes for a possible book."
I drained the last of my bourbon. As I peered into the bottom, as if waiting for more to magically appear, Abbott noticed my distress, and signalled for the waitress. He held up my glass a signal for a refill. "Make it a double," he half whispered to her. I stared blankly, unable to talk until she returned with another glass of amber liquid.
"God, I needed that more than you know. Where was I? Ah -- on weekends I wandered through the area, and tried to blend in. I found one little diner that I really liked. They served comfort food, at least what passed for comfort food in the area. It was quaint, everyone was friendly, not always the case in that area, especially when it came to outsiders. Good food at good prices, but the real attraction was a waitress -- Linda Jensen was her name. A petite brunette with a smile that could start a sunrise. The largest brown eyes you ever saw. We hit it off, and it wasn't long before we started seeing each other.
"Our relationship was going great. I thought I had it made, Abbott -- a job that I loved, and someone I could be happy spending the rest of my life with. But there was always something between us, some kind of barrier that we could not get past." I paused and took another long sip, almost draining the glass. "Abbott, do you want another? Oh, sorry. I don't mean to digress, but the alcohol is definitely calming my nerves..."
I produced a pack of cigarettes that I couldn't remember buying, and lit one automatically, even though I quit smoking some time ago.
"So, back to my tale," I said, as I coughed involuntarily. "Whenever we seemed to get particularly close, she seemed to pull back, to withdraw. Her doldrums got particularly acute whenever I talked about marriage, and children -- especially children. The situation worsened, and soon even the mere mention of children, or even seeing a mother with a newborn, would send her into fits of uncontrollable, hysterical crying. She would only tell me that something terrible had happened. My mind would race -- was it a miscarriage, a tragic accident? Had she been abused as a child? Nothing that I did could console her.
"Finally, there was a particularly horrid incident. She literally wailed. It was all I could do to get her into my car, and bring her back to my small apartment near the university. I wrapped her in a blanket, and grabbed the glass decanter off of a sofa table. The contents were some of the finest moonshine ever produced in the state of Kentucky -- so I was told by the colleague who obtained it for me. Potent stuff -- still called 'corn squeezins' in many of the hollers and furthest valleys of those wild and rugged Kentucky mountains."
I could see Abbott leaning forward, hands clasped under his chin.
"I managed to get her to take a sip or two. It had the hoped-for calming effect, and eventually, it got her to open up. She had suffered a tragedy -- she had a child who died during child birth, or so she was told. It also turned out that she had a husband. She had lived with him and his degenerate family -- and I use that term in its scientific sense -- in their private holler -- private hell, she called it.
Finally, she got the courage to flee one night, and slipped out of the holler on foot. She walked all night, stopping at her family's home long enough to get some money, and she took a bus to Jamesboro.
"Her family did not question her need to flee. They had been against the marriage from the beginning. There had been terrible whispers and innuendos for more than a century about the Jensens and the evil that they harbored within the confines of their little valley.
"She sobbed for half the night. I didn't believe the human body capable of producing so many tears. It turns out that she didn't believe the baby had died. Her husband's cousin was also pregnant at the same time, and a family midwife attended them both. The cousin's baby was supposedly born healthy, but Linda had doubts that she was ever pregnant. She thinks that it was an elaborate charade to get her child. Linda was one of the few outsiders to be let into Jensen's Holler, as the valley was known. She guessed that they occasionally sought out new blood to temper the centuries of inbreeding. But she did not know of any one that stayed or stayed alive. From bits and snatches of conversation that she overheard, she knew that the other outsiders had left or were never seen again in the holler, but their offspring always -- always -- stayed in the holler.
"The alcohol granted her merciful sleep. She slept fitfully through the rest of the night, and nearly all of the next day. I attended her the best I could, though my medical knowledge does not exceed band aids and ice packs. She babbled in her sleep -- some words I could make out, but, Lord, there were some I wished I hadn't."
I was gesturing wildly. Abbott motioned me to calm down, as he looked down the length of the restaurant, to see if any of the few patrons were looking in their direction.
"Occasionally she screamed," I continued. "I applied cold compresses, and cradled her. Finally, she fell back into a deep sleep. When she awoke, I had coffee and a small meal ready. Now that I had pried the secret loose, her tale gushed forth.
"She was from the rustic town of Prattville. It's about forty miles east of Jamesboro along the banks of the Kanawah River. It is at the foothills of the mountains that sprout wildly upward in that part of Kentucky, mountains with places that are unexplored to this very day. Places where people live much as they had when the first settlers moved into the region -- contemporaries of Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton. Places where people know little of modern conveniences like electricity and the automobile, and indoor plumbing is merely a fantasy.
I dared not trespass in these places as part of my studies; outsiders have a way of never being heard from again. Even the state police just shrug their shoulders, and fear to venture very far into the countryside.
"Linda had a normal upbringing for these parts, the usual high school stuff, cheerleading, cruising the town square and the like. She wanted to go to college, but her family couldn't afford it; her grades weren't good enough to get scholarships, so she went to work in one of the local diners. That's where she met Robert Jensen. What was it she said -- she comes off with these curious things -- at first I thought it was just a reflection of the archaic speech of the area, but often they are prophetically accurate depictions. She called him an outside Jensen. He was one of the family who could pass as an outsider -- one of the normal locals. It seems that there is a family disease or condition, probably a symptom of two centuries of inbreeding, that strikes when males reach a certain age. They develop a pronounced hump or hunch on their backs. The whole family, it seems, except for a few exceptions, like Robert, also have a squat toad-like face with bulging eyes. A thoroughly frightening and horrible visage, I assure you."
I shook at the thought, and tried to thump another cigarette from the pack, only to succeed in scattering them across the table. I had difficulty getting the match and cigarette close to each other. Abbott picked them up as I continued my story.
"After the horrid episode, I decided that I would try to ascertain the truth on her behalf. I was going to call the police in Prattville and request an investigation. When I mentioned this to her, the expressions on her face alternated between sheer horror and wild amusement.
She did not really want the townsfolk of Prattville to know what happened. She did not wish to be another part of the fearful and horrid legend of the Jensens, and beside, she was sure the police of Prattville would never set foot in Jensen's Holler, even if the President of the United States were held hostage there. So we decided that she would remain in Jamesboro, at my apartment, and I would discreetly look into things, and we agreed that we would have to take such actions ourselves as we deemed appropriate.
"That very weekend, I ventured by car to Prattville. I had lunch in the very diner where Linda Jensen worked. I casually mentioned to the waitress that I was a professor at Northeastern Kentucky University, and that I was doing research on ghosts and legends for a book I was writing. She was older, and obviously one of the old time residents of Prattville. When I mentioned Jensen's Holler she made the sign against the evil eye, and her demeanor changed suddenly from cheerful server to frightened superstitious local. She suggested in no uncertain terms that I hurry with my lunch, and not return to the diner again.
"I toured the town on foot, and perused some of the antique and other shops in the crumbling and disused downtown. It was a foreboding town. The buildings were obviously of a vast age, and although some must have had face lifts in the 50's, all of them were in need of paint, and many of the roofs sagged like a sway back horse. It was as if the place had died decades ago, and was only waiting for someone to give it a decent burial.
"All of the older residents reacted much as the waitress had. I was shown the door in more than one establishment. Younger residents simply shrugged and said there were wild tales told to them as children -- some bogeyman tales designed to frighten them into being good. They didn't believe them now that they were older, although one girl confided in me that there was a tale of some high school kids back in the Sixties who got drunk one Halloween, and went out to Jensen's Holler -- and were never heard from again. There were stories of strange fires deep in the Holler that night, but the police had refused to investigate.
"I stumbled across the local historical society. It was an ancient home, with a gambrel roof. It suffered from age and weather as did the others in town -- only the sign labeling it as the historical society seemed new. I went up the short flight of stone steps, and tried the old metal door knob. It turned, and the door creaked inward. The interior was barely lit, and although it was a bright sunny day, little of the afternoon sun was able to penetrate the dusty windows. What little light alleviated the gloom came from several table lamps fitted with bulbs of low wattage. There must not have been any electrical codes for the ancient wiring was still visible, stapled to the ceiling on round, white ceramic insulators.
"In front of the fireplace was a battered desk of crude design, a local product with some historical significance no doubt. The stain was nearly worn off in places. Seated on a chair of equal vintage was a white haired woman, writing on a legal pad. I introduced myself as an associate professor in the area of Appalachian studies, and explained that I was doing research for a book. I avoided mention of the Jensen name, and instead inquired whether there was some local histories that I could read. She rose, and pulled a couple books from one of the book cases, an old barrister's cabinet, and motioned me to a small table.
"I spent the next couple of hours engrossed in the history of Prattville. It seems that it was settled by contemporaries of Daniel Boone. It was one of several small settlements that were set up in different places along the Kanawah and its tributaries. The histories were replete with accounts of skirmishes with the local tribes, including Shawnee from Ohio, to whom the land in Can-tuc-kee was sacred -- a hunting ground which provided sustenance, but upon which no man was allowed to settle.
"One of the settlements was started by Heinrich Jensen, a German immigrant. He, his family, and two other families settled in a holler near where a tributary merged with the Kanawah. A narrow slit provided the only ingress and egress for the valley, so it was very easy to defend in the event of an attack by the natives. Inside, the valley widened immediately, and gradually went up hill. After a couple of miles, the valley narrowed again. For its whole length the valley was surrounded by parallel steep, heavily forested mountains, and it was a dark foreboding place, by all accounts. Through the center of the valley a stream meandered, not an entirely wholesome stream either. It flowed out of the holler, and into the tributary.
"Because it was near a low point in the Kanawah, it became known as Jensen's Ford. Unlike other settlers of the region, the Jensen party discovered that they did not have problems with the local tribes. It wasn't just the defensible nature of the holler, with its narrow opening and steep escarps, but there was something about the land itself that the Indians shunned. There was some primal fear that gripped the Indians so, that when on hunting parties they would go out of their way to avoid that part of the river.
"One text had an account of a party of settlers who were being chased by Indians, and who retreated to the safety of Jensen's Ford. The Indians were close on their heels. When the braves discovered where they where, they seemed to go almost mad in their effort to reverse direction, and retreat into the safety of the woods. They did not stay there in some primitive siege as would be expected, but could be seen moving through the forest as rapidly as possible without any effort whatsoever to conceal their movements. The settlers accepted the protection and hospitality of the people in the holler, but recounted the feeling they had of some evil that lurked nearby. By morning they were nearly unhinged. When they left, one of the settling families of Jensen's Ford, the Mullers, went with them.
"At Prattville, the Mullers told wild tales of some unseen evil that lurked in the holler and stalked them, taking several members of the settling party, until Heinrich Jensen made some accommodation with it. They said that the thing was not only not human, but was not even from this world, being instead from some far off star. They contended that it had lived in this place for aeons, going about at night, picking off Indians who lagged behind on raiding or hunting parties, or were just plain foolish enough to venture into the primordial forest alone. The Mullers soon left the district, and went back east to the comfort and the safety of a more populous area. That was the beginning of the legend of Jensen's Ford as a place to be avoided.
"The accounts of the Jensen family did not end there. There came a time in the late 1700's when the third family that settled in the holler, the Kohls were heard from no more. Jensen claimed that they could no longer take the rigors of life on the frontier, and had departed for the east. But, Abigail Smith, one of the residents of Prattville who had become friendly with Mrs. Kohl, doubted it loudly and frequently to any one who would listen. Mrs. Kohl had confided to her that she and her family lived in fear in the holler, and not just in fear of the nameless entity that dwelt in the deep recesses of the holler, but of Heinrich Jensen and his family as well. She recounted tales of rituals she observed deep in the holler, and of an altar that Jensen had built there. She also said that the Jensen family was growing, and hinted that it was due to incest. She did not explain her fears in detail, but muttered something about the lack of Indians to offer to the thing since the tribes were being pushed farther westward. She was afraid she and her family might be next.
"There were other annals of the region, almost police reports of the time, that mention the strange disappearance of farm animals. The locals of the time found tracks leading to the Kanawah near Jensen's Ford, but they dared not use the ford to go further to the mouth of the holler, for on his infrequent visits to Prattville for supplies, Heinrich Jensen had amply demonstrated that he was not someone to be trifled with. There were also accounts of unexplained disappearances of settlers who had stopped at Prattville on their way westward. Rumors of the time laid the disappearances at the feet of Jensens.
"The visits to Prattville became less frequent as the Jensen family found most of what they needed in the holler, but did not stop altogether. It was in the early 1800's that the family deformity began to manifest itself. It was noted in the history that several of the Jensens had come to Prattville, and were observed to have a humped back. They also appeared to have a squat face, and bulging eyes -- not at all the Germanic countenance of the family patriarch, Heinrich Jensen, who was still rumored to be alive, and was demonstrating an unnatural vitality. He had to be in his mid-80's by that time.
"Throughout the history, there were unexplained disappearances. One particularly chilling account made my hair stand on end, Abbott." Again, I shuddered involuntarily, as a river of ice spread up my back. "It occurred during the civil war... In 1864, a company of Union soldiers made camp near the mouth of the Holler. During the night they were attacked, but not by rebel soldiers. Most of the company was lost, but a couple of them survived, and were found wandering in the woods near Prattville -- severely wounded, and quite in shock. They babbled wildly about some unseen horror that had settled in among them, and rent them limb from limb. One of the survivors displayed what appeared to be bite marks that removed the flesh on his arm down to the very bone. Bullets had no effect whatever, if they could be certain that they had even hit anything.
"The next day, a well armed contingent of locals, backed up by a Union patrol went to Jensen's Ford. Near where the stream came into the tributary they found signs of a pitched battle. Guns, other equipment -- bedrolls and canteens -- littered the scene. In many places there were patches of grass stained rusty brown, sure evidence of the casualties, but there were no actual remains, save a few body parts, and those had the hideous appearance of having been gnawed upon. Here and there were spots of a foul-smelling green ichor that gleamed as it dried in the sun. It sent chills up and down the spines of those who got close to it. Some of the rust-colored patches were evident inside the Holler.
"The Union troops were incensed at the apparent carnage, and in the red fog of their battle lust were about to charge full tilt into the narrow valley, but the locals blocked their path. The fact that their enemies were attempting to save their lives must have made an impression on them.
"About the time that they convinced the troops to leave, one of the Jensens appeared at the entrance to the Holler. Some of the troops would swear that the obviously ancient man identified himself as Heinrich Jensen. He claimed that they had heard the commotion during the night, and knew it to be an attack by the mountain lions that prowled the upper reaches of the steep surrounding mountains. He claimed that they had lost family members to such attacks, and were loathe to venture out at night; although he could not say why such a well armed group of men could have come to such an end from mere animals. The War Department was concerned enough that it issued an order to the Union armies traversing the area to avoid Jensen's Ford.
"I continued on in the histories. Shortly after the war there were reports of coal being discovered near Prattville. It was found in the Holler as well. The find caused the resumption of visits to Prattville by members of the Jensen family, who would come with several wagon loads of coal to be exchanged for supplies. The history noted that there were now many homes in the Holler. The Jensens who brought the coal to Prattville did not exhibit the peculiarity of features or the odd physical appearance of earlier generations. The chronicles also detailed marriage announcements. In some of the books were mentions of nuptials between male members of the Jensen clan and local women. The reports of the disappearances of residents of Prattville continued, and were reported regularly through the years.
Abbot ordered me yet another bourbon. "It feels good to finally tell someone about this," I said, fumbling for another cigarette, but now being sufficiently calm to light it myself.
"I found that there was simply too much information to digest in one afternoon. I made arrangements with the curator to return the following weekend. She promised to have more historical accounts available to me, as well as copies of old newspapers. I returned to my apartment to find Linda in better spirits, but restless from being pent up. Over dinner I related some of my findings. I did not reveal all of the gruesome reports that I had discovered, but enough to bolster her suspicions of some eldred evil that stalked the holler, and that held the Jensen family in its foul grasp for over two centuries.
"There was one part of my dissertation that caused her to gasp, and involuntarily cover her mouth with her hand. That was the mention of Heinrich Jensen and the meeting with the civil war soldiers. She confided to me that there was a pecking order in the placement of houses in the holler."
"Newer married couples were housed nearer to the mouth of the holler, while older members of the clan lived deeper into the recesses of the valley," she said. "With the oldest living not far from the coal mine that was worked still."
"She was not permitted, and indeed had no desire to venture into that area, the feeling of dread being so overpowering; but at their wedding, which took place near the mouth of the holler, she was introduced to a Heinrich Jensen, whose face was more wrinkles than face, and who exhibited a vast age in his bent frame. He was barely able to walk, and was introduced as her husband's grandfather, with a long string of "greats" in front of it. Although he could have been named for the progenitor of the Jensen clan in Kentucky, she had this terrible feeling that he was even older than she could ever have suspected. An idea fully supported by my research. God! Abbot, well, I guess it has nothing to do with God does it? But just the knowledge of a man nearly 300 years old living in the hills of Kentucky should be enough to get me committed." I was gesturing wildly again, half rising off of the bench, but being restrained by the table.
"I should have had enough sense to flee with Linda right then and there--as far away as possible, although Canada, even Australia, might not be far enough away, for I fear that Jensen's Ford is not the only haunt of what we were to discover there. But I returned as promised the following weekend. This time I arrived early so as to spend as much time as possible immersed in the unholy history of the area around Prattville.
"I picked up where I left off although references to the Jensen's in the local histories had tapered off. I suspect that the local townspeople had simply learned to shun the area. But the population of Prattville and its environs grew, and people began living ever closer to the haunted little valley. Accounts of disappearances again were prominent in the newspapers. There was also a totally chilling account of a woman who had wed one of the "outside Jensens" and who was found wandering in the forest, half mad, ranting about some abhorrent "Christening" ceremony held for her child. She claimed that there was an altar in the deep woods, and hinted that some type of circumcision was performed when the child reached a certain age. But it was hard to make much sense of the account. The newspaper hinted that she had been put into an institution, as much for the protection of the populace, as for herself.
"Why didn't the locals just rise up and put an end to the Jensens?" asked Abbott.
"Abbott, they tried. I almost missed the report in the paper. I think it was buried in the back pages intentionally. I thought I would go mad right then and there. It was right after World War I. Many of the young men of Prattville had served in the war. They knew its horrors first hand, and had learned how to fight. There were several disappearances that year, and there were obvious signs that pointed to the evil in the holler.
"A group of heavily armed vigilantes, composed of many of the county's war heroes, and, Abbot, I emphasize the heavily armed part, invaded the holler. The invasion came as a total surprise to the Jensens living in the holler, and they were able to advance far into the little valley with out detection.
"They torched several of the houses nearest to the entrance to the valley, and killed the occupants as they tried to escape. The account gets fuzzy, but the report mentions that a great storm had come up suddenly, and that lightning from the storm had hit several members of the party, but Abbott, there was no storm any where else in Eastern Kentucky that day. Jensen clan members, awakened by the great commotion, and the acrid smoke from the burning cabins, assembled and returned fire, some from the forest. Of the twenty five men who stole into the holler that night, only two returned. They were incoherent, and blathering. The local authorities decided that it was the posse who was at fault, and didn't investigate further, and so no charges were ever levelled at the Jensens, who were thought to be merely defending themselves.
"I tell you Abbot, there was no storm. I can only think of the encampment of Union soldiers nearly 55 years before. Something indeed had defended the Jensens, and I shudder to think what it might have been.
"There were scant other accounts at this time--some disappearances, another account of an escaped woman institutionalized after a similar tale of hideous rituals in the deep woods. Knowing all of that, what we did next was completely unthinkable." I paused to take a drink from the fresh bourbon, delivered by the waitress.
"I returned to Jamesboro. This time I was more deliberate in the facts that I gave to Linda. We were both similarly disturbed by the mention of rituals in the woods. Such things were hinted at in hushed tones among the family members, but not spoken of directly. Conversations among long time residents of the holler would abruptly cease at her approach. She kept her mouth shut, and her ears open.
"By the time she had discovered that she was pregnant, she was disillusioned with life in the holler. Even though she and Robert lived in a more modern dwelling closest to the entrance to the holler, and there were modern conveniences now like electricity, and indoor plumbing, she found she had nothing in common with the rest of the Jensens. She was horrified at the severe inbreeding, and the strange physical peculiarities. Even the "outside Jensens" would undergo the transformation by the time that they reached forty. Others of the clan--those whose blood was not diluted by outside DNA--exhibited those traits from birth. And she too had heard of a perverse Christening ritual, although none had taken place while she was there.
"As she told me the details of Robert's cousin's mysterious pregnancy, that was announced even as hers was, and which appeared to mimic her own, I too became convinced that it was contrived. There was no morning sickness, and the fullness of her belly never looked quite right. She was never able to observe, or feel the kicking of the baby in the third trimester.
"The clan always had their own mid-wife, trained from generation to generation. This mid-wife attended both of the births, which were supposed to have occurred within days of each other. She was given a potion, she had no other way to describe it, after the birth. It caused her to sleep for nearly two days. When she awoke, groggy and confused, they gave her the terrible news. The mid-wife was the harbinger. Her husband was there, along with a couple of the female elders--crones--she oddly called them. They told her that the child was already buried in the family cemetery, higher up on one of the canyon walls. Indeed she would later be shown a newly dug grave with a crude marker bearing the legend of "baby Jensen" and the date. She couldn't understand why her husband refused to look her in the eye, not just then, but in the weeks that followed. One of the crones always seemed to be nearby, and seemed to provoke a nervous reaction in her husband. "These Jensen women also visited their bungalow frequently, ostensibly to make sure she was alright, but she ascribed darker motives to these visits. Finally, she could no longer cope with the constant fear and dread, the attempts at intimidation, and the extreme depression at the loss of her son, for it was a son she was told.
"When she knew her husband would be at a home farther back in the holler, on a night of the new moon, she quietly followed the stream out of the holler, and made her way to her parents home. She was surprised that she was not followed, but then reprisal was not the Jensen way, for who would believe the fantastic tales that any of the escapees of the Jensens might have told through the ages.
"It was nearly a year to the day that the child had died. The moon would be full in a couple days. That was the day when the Christening would take place. Although she had never been there she had overheard the directions to the altar in the woods. She was certain that she could find it. We decided that we would try to find out if the child was still alive, and if so to get him back.
"It's strange what one will do for love, Abbott. It was a mad idea. I was able to borrow a pistol and a rifle from a colleague--one of those military look alikes, one of high velocity and power. To undertake such a venture during the full moon was even madder still, but we drove to Jensen's Ford. Highway 34 comes perilously close as it follows the river. Developers, hungry for land, were now building in the vicinity, as older residents passed away, and the younger generation of Prattville refused to believe the hideous old tales of an evil presence in the area, there seemed to be no reason not to.
"We pulled off the highway nearly a quarter of a mile from the mouth of the holler. A gravel road now connected from the holler to the highway, following the shallow banks of the stream that made its way in serpentine fashion through the middle of the canyon. Its origins were somewhere high up in the deeper recesses of the holler.
"We crossed the gravel road, and entered the holler, bearing to the left, to the farther mountain that formed one of the boundaries of Jensen's Holler. Linda motioned me to follow her into the woods. There was a path about ten feet in. She whispered that this was an escape route, and a means the Jensens used in moving about the holler without being seen. There was a similar path across the holler at the foot of the other ridge.
"It didn't take long for our eyes to adjust to the dim light of the woodland path. Through the trees we could mark our progress by the number of houses we passed along the holler floor. Many of them had lights on, but I could detect no movement inside. This singular fact should have raised a wall of red terror in the back of my mind, but I was now caught up in our mission--I was fully playing the part of the hero for the woman I loved.
"My breathing had increased, and I felt a certain exhilaration, bolstered by the presence of the weapons I carried, and the thought of the green ichor found on the ground in the civil war. I was certain it was a type of blood, supernatural though it might be, it meant that whatever the evil was it could be wounded, and I told myself, if it could be wounded, then it could be killed.
"It was nearing midnight, and the moon was high over the ridges that hemmed in the valley. Soon the houses were not modern, but were small, and of obvious great age, some no more than simple log cabins that looked more like something out of a Grimm fairy tale, rather than colonial Kentucky. The valley continued to narrow, until finally we could see a bonfire through the trees. There was a clearing, and in the center of the clearing was a large altar made of rough hewn stones. To the left of it was a chair made in the same fashion as the altar. Seated in it was a smallish man. He was bent and misshapen, and of obvious great age. His skin hung loosely about his face. On the opposite side of the altar was another stone chair, but this one was much larger. Seated in it was a figure whose very sight defied all logic, and caused my bowels to turn to jelly. It was an abomination of nature such as I could never have imagined. It was twice the size of a man, and reddish in color as it reflected the light of the bonfire that was behind the altar. It had a head that was squat and toad like, with great bulging eyes. Huge fangs emerged from either side of its mouth. It had human-like, well muscled arms that ended in large clawed hands. Its legs were also human-like, but ending in bird like feet with talons. It sat forward in the seat. It could not sit back because of the dragon fly like wings that emerged from its back. It was naked, and obviously male.
"Linda fainted. I was barely able to grab her and lower her gently to the ground. Surrounding the altar was the Jensen clan. It looked like some stone age tribe performing some primal ritual. But there was never a stone age tribe like this, Abbott. Wait, I need another drink. Sorry, my hands shake whenever I think of this scene, which is now so thoroughly etched into my mind. I could make out a few of the outside Jensens, as Linda called them, but most of the assembled crowd, at least the males, exhibited the physical traits for which the Jensen clan had become known through the decades.
"They resembled smaller, misshapen versions of the face of the hideous monster. They also had a peculiar hump. I could not help but gasp when I noticed that several of the men were not wearing shirts, and that they had the same dragon fly like wings sprouting from the middle of their upper backs.
"At this time Linda roused. I had to cover her mouth with my hand to hold back the screams that struggled to erupt from her lungs. I helped her to her feet. That was when I noticed the altar. There lay a baby, about a year old. Next to it was an old woman, whom I was later to learn was the mid-wife, and next to her was the man I deduced was her husband, Robert, based on the description she had relayed to me.
"The mid-wife held up the child for all to see. I gasped again as I noticed the tiny vestigial wings that it possessed. In a strong voice the mid-wife spoke. "Behold the child of our Lord and Master--and from the departed Linda Jensen". She laid the child on the altar on his stomach. She produced a crude, but sharp, wildly serrated knife from a pocket of the apron she wore. With deft strokes, she cut off the tiny wings, and bound the wounds, as the child cried.
"The creature then stood. It spoke, Abbot! It spoke!" I was nearly half out of my chair, and the volume of my voice caused Abbott to rise from his seat, and force me back onto the bench.
"It uttered human words and some sort of gibberish that I suspect is its native tongue. I don't know what organ it uses to make sounds, for the speech I heard was nothing akin to human. The crowd answered him. 'Shub niggerath', was all I could make out, and, uh-uh something about Yuggoth. I have seen these very words once before, Abbott. One of my colleagues who delves into the mystic and arcane, had several books on loan from a small university in Massachusetts. I don't remember the name, but it was somewhere near Salem. The books were kept under lock and key, and closely guarded with extra security. They described ancient evil rituals, and how to contact some ancient race from somewhere else in the galaxy--a race that once lived on this planet, and whose dark minions, like this creature in the holler, live here still. My skin crawled just to touch one of the books, and their odd leather bindings that were all too hauntingly familiar.
"I believe, Abbot, that this action of cutting the wings prevents them from growing back until later in life, letting the Jensens move among normal people for a time. At this Linda could no longer contain her horror, and I could not maintain my grip on her. She let out a scream that echoed off the steep holler walls, and reverberated up and down the holler. It caught the attention of the assembled multitude--and the creature!
"All I could think of was the Union encampment, and all the troubled souls who disappeared over two centuries of time. I didn't take time to think, I lifted the rifle and took aim. The beast presented an easy target. I squeezed the trigger time and time again. I could hear an inhuman screaming that nearly burst my eardrums even at that distance. Howls and screams erupted from the crowd, but they were frozen by the inconceivable events occurring around them. I don't know what possessed me, or even where I got the courage, but I took aim at the tiny figure of Heinrich Jensen who was now standing horror stricken in front of his throne, and fired, watching that ancient wrinkled, face erupt in a red mist. I fired one bullet at the figure of Robert Jensen, striking him full in the chest.
"Linda was screaming uncontrollably now. I grabbed her by the arm and we ran headlong down that path through those infernal woods. We could hear the great commotion behind us as the Jensen clan began to recover from the shock of the shooting of the creature. I glanced behind me to see torches starting to emerge from the clearing in the back reaches of the holler.
"We emerged from the woods onto the gravel road. I could begin to see the headlights of aging vehicles farther up the road. We made it to the car, and I poured her into the passenger seat. I turned and went back down highway 34, hitting one hundred easily, and luckily did not observe any vehicles following us. I did not stop until we hit Ohio, and then only to get gas and booze. It took nearly a whole bottle to knock Linda out.
"Somewhere around Des Moines, I stopped at a hospital. I left Linda there, with information pinned to her blouse. I will make discreet inquiries in a few weeks, when I am sure it is safe, and I am sure of my sanity. I don't think there is any way that she will ever be the same, especially when she understood who the father of her child was. I think she started to remember things that I am sure the mid-wife had blocked out by some dark arts. I don't know how long, Abbott, before I too will seek the surcease of a padded room, or a painless death. I can see by the look on your face that you think I have made this entire story up, my dear Abbot, but see here." I fumbled to get into one of the pockets of my coat. "Let me show you something--it was an object I tripped over on our way to the clearing." I shoved the smooth, onyx colored, curved shape thing at Abbott. "You're a paleontologist, Abbott, you tell me what kind of animal has a claw like this."
© 2007 by Brian C. Petroziello
Bio: "I am an attorney in Dayton, Ohio, USA. I heve previously had multiple appearances in print in Black Petals and Amazing Journeys. I have appeared on line in Aphelion, Dark Fire UK, Unhallowed Sanctum, Planet Magazine, Descending Darkness, and Fools Motley. Stories have been accepted and are awaiting publication in Black Petals, Escaping Elswhere and Ethereal Gazette." Brian's most recent Aphelion appearance was The One-Eyed Dragon, April 2006.
E-mail: Brian C. Petroziello
Website: Brian C. Petroziello - The Official Writing Website
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Lettercol
Or Return to Aphelion's Index page.