The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window.
“Dad, who is in there?” I said, taking in the yellowish glow barely visible through the grime of the cracked glass.
“Not sure, Jenny girl,” he said. “Strange, huh?”
After a long but successful day of fishing for perch, my father and I were on our way home by crossing the wet meadow and going through the woods. Although we were newcomers to this part of the state, we had passed the dilapidated cabin a few times before and decided that the forest service must have chosen to simply let it crumble back into the earth. We tried to peek in once, but the bright sunlight hadn’t done much to chase the dark shadows from its bowels. With what could be seen, it appeared empty and structurally unsafe.
“Yes, very strange. Do you think someone lives there now?”
“Well, no. I don’t suppose so. That old place wouldn’t be much of a shelter,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe some teenagers or something. That building has some odd history attached to it.”
“What do you mean?”
The translucent shape of the moon already hung in the darkening sky, and my father realized that we needed to quicken our pace to be home in time to clean and cook the fish for dinner.
“Oh, just a weird legend.”
“Legend? Like a ghost story?”
“Not exactly, sweetheart. Nothing to worry your pretty little strawberry head about.”
“Daaaaaad…strawberry head?” I said with a scowl, amping up my phony indignation.
He laughed. “Yep. Just like your shortcake doll. Including the freckles. Come on, shake a leg. Mom will be wondering what the hold-up is.”
Shortly after reaching the trail leading home, my favorite section of the woods surrounded us. Usually, it was an almost magical place, perfect to catch sight of a surprised deer or rabbit.
“Dad, look. The lightning bugs are already waking up,” I said, pointing at one of the creatures pirouetting through the foliage. “After supper, can we—”
The question suffocated in my throat as an unrecognizable screeching sound pierced the peaceful forest setting and made us pause in fear. Silently reading the poorly-masked anxiety on my father’s face, we resumed our pace with trepidation. Without a word, he clasped my hand tightly in his. As we continued along the path, the same bizarre, shrill screams bore down upon us, coming closer and closer.
“Dad, what is—”
“Come on, Jenny. Quiet now,” my father hissed, tugging me to increase my gait.
The creature, or whatever it was, was running alongside us, but the incoming darkness and the dense treeline hid its form from our sight. Letting go of my hand, my father frantically began flinging fish into the trees.
“Keep going, Jenny. Maybe this will slow it down…if it’s a hungry animal…”
There was still about a quarter-mile before we would reach the edge of the wooded area and our property. Soon, we were out of perch and bait, and the cries seemed to be only inches away from us. Without slowing down, my father dropped everything he could of the load of fishing gear and supplies he still carried. He picked me up and awkwardly ran with my gangly form in his embrace.
The electric lights shining through the windows of our farmhouse were a beacon as we sprinted through the backyard and toward Momma. She heard the devilish sounds while she was folding laundry and came out to the back porch. She stood there with her fingers gripping the handrail, searching for any sign of her family.
When her worried eyes finally rested on us bursting out of the woods, she cried out in relief. “Oh, thank God. Do you hear that noise?”
Father shouted, “Marisa, quick. Get inside and lock everything up.”
As she turned and obeyed, we bounded in behind her. Our spaniel mix greeted us with a tennis ball in his mouth, thinking of games and treats.
“Down, Champ,” my father commanded before slamming and locking the door behind us. As he closed the curtains across the small pane of glass, he took a final peek into the eerily-quiet night. Not even the frogs or crickets sang a note. “I think we’re good now, darling. Nothing there.” He turned to me and ruffled my hair with a tight smile. “Well, how about pancakes for dinner?”
Later that night, my father reluctantly told me the legend of the Jersey Devil, a creature that was born at the cabin and plagued the forest for centuries. He heard the tales before buying the property within its bounds but had not held much credence in their truth or accuracy. At least, not until our rendezvous.
For me, the chilling story was new – and one that my mother wasn’t sure my young ears should hear. But my father insisted upon it due to our experience earlier that day. There was no point in keeping me blissfully nescient anymore about our new place in the Pine Barrens, a place we now called home. Sometimes, in the darkest moments, I wish my mother had won that battle. This is what I remember about the strange being that starred in my father’s fireside chat that evening.
In the early 1700s, a man named Edward journeyed to America searching for success. His first plan was to purchase land. That did not happen, however, because he was unknowingly trespassing near a reservation. A small group of indigenous people found him getting ready to kill a beaver for food in a place that they had already marked off as their own, and they took him to their leader to decide what his punishment would be.
Edward intrigued the chief. Moreover, he was enthralled by some of the European’s possessions, such as an intricate pocket compass. After questioning Edward, he decided to hold him hostage. But Edward never truly felt like a prisoner. And after living with the community for two years, he believed that he had found his true home. He was treated well and taught to live like the others. He observed and embraced their way of life and took part in their celebrations and customs. He often went hunting with the other men in search of food, learning about their reverence for the natural spirits. Eventually, he even forged a romantic bond with a woman named Halona.
On occasion, Edward wore animal skins and feathers as he danced around the fire with the others. That is how the team of colonists found him as they raided the village.
The first shot hit Halona square in the forehead. Rage surged through Edward’s body, and he charged for the closest intruder like an insane bull. When he reached the stranger, Edward knocked the pistol out of the startled man’s hand. A flurry of powerful punches knocked the man off his feet. He picked up the pistol and shot the man through his heart.
Edward looked around the chaotic scene. The native people weren’t going down without a fight. He saw several attackers lying on the ground with arrows or spears sticking out of them. But, still, the invaders circled his chosen family on their horses, shooting person after person. They lit fire to whatever they did not find useful enough to steal, using the community’s celebratory flames against them. Edward fought with everything he had. Luckily, most of the children scattered and hid before the massacre, and a baby wailed from its hiding place. It was not long, however, until ten invaders and only three natives remained.
Knowing that none of the survivors could do much harm, the assailants turned their attention to Edward who was holding the bloody scalp of the man who had killed Halona. His pale eyes moved wildly in their sockets, feral with rage and despair.
“He’s gone crazy, Bill. Kill him,” one of the men said from the back of his horse.
“No. We got rid of the natives, except those three ragamuffins, so let’s get out of here. Leave him alone.”
The men rode away as Edward held the fragile form of Halona’s body. The three survivors chanted beneath the somber sky as silent trails of sorrow fell from their chestnut eyes.
And it was then that all heavenly hope – along with any remaining strands of Edward’s sanity– melded with the innumerable drops of tears and blood and seeped into the scorched earth.
Soon after the Revolutionary War, Emma Harris met Edward Leeds. Emma came from a proper family but grew into a wild child amid excitement at all times. When villagers saw her flaming auburn locks, they never knew what to expect.
The men described her as “clever as the devil and twice as pretty.”
Emma was the center of attention at all social gatherings. Her reputation was known for miles around, and some had the crazy idea that she may even be a witch. Surely something supernatural caused all the menfolk to fall into her spell – even while being simultaneously outraged by her wicked behavior. But having fun was all Emma cared about, and she had a violent temper if things did not go her way.
At one community celebration, the rebellious girl met Edward and was captivated by his quiet and non-reactionary demeanor toward her wiles. Puzzled by his enigmatic aloofness and dangerous air, she challenged herself to solve his mystery.
Emma managed to get him alone one night in the trees not too far from his frequent haunt – the town tavern.
There, she seduced him, using her many charms to catch him off guard. After days grew into months without seeing Edward again, she realized with horror that she was pregnant and her days of freedom were numbered.
The word spread quickly and soon Edward found himself under immense pressure to make her his wife. He didn’t even like Emma, but due to the harassment that was bestowed upon him, he regretfully decided that it would be the easiest solution to marry her.
After Emma reluctantly moved into Edward’s ramshackle cabin in the woods, ten years went by without event. The couple was rarely seen among the residents of the area. There was curiosity but never worry. Most people, including Emma’s often-embarrassed parents, were glad that Emma had been virtually erased from society.
The only thing that the local population knew was that Emma seemed to be pregnant all the time.
There was gossip that they already had ten or eleven children. Many people’s curiosity led them to try to spy on the Leeds, but the dark blinds covering all the windows of their cabin always thwarted their attempts. Children were sometimes seen, but no one could get an accurate count.
If they could have seen through those dark blinds, the woman Emma had become would have shocked them. Gone were her youthful good looks and spirited personality. Her appearance already began to resemble that of the quintessential hag — the aging witch she had been rumored to be. She no longer took pride in her fiery glory — her auburn hair — now a tangled nest of filth pinned haphazardly on top of her head.
She had the weather-weary look of someone who has undergone great hardship—which she had. After being married, it didn’t take Emma long to discover the reason why Edward was so quiet and cagey.
He was so far down a dirt-filled hole of despair that the sun’s warm rays were a distant childhood memory. And the worms, fat and sated, had already eaten every last morsel of his humanity. He was a man who had lost everything down to his faith and very soul. He drank away his days in delirium, reliving fractured moments with Halona and her people. He did little to help Emma and the twelve children, as it was too late to even help himself.
When Emma realized that child number thirteen was coming into the world, Edward was long gone. No one knew where, and no one cared enough to find out.
“Let this one be a devil!” she said, raising her hands to the heavens.
And on a stormy night, months after the curse had escaped her exasperated lips, she gave birth to her thirteenth child. Her words were all but forgotten as the midwife handed her a baby boy.
Within moments, however, the transformation began. As the wailing infant began growing at an inconceivable rate, horns sprouted from the top of its head, and claws tore through the tender flesh of his fingertips.
The horrified midwife backed out of the room moaning in fear as she witnessed wings – almost like a bat’s – unfurl from the hideous beast’s back.
The creature, with eyes glowing blood-red, savagely attacked Emma before flying toward his siblings and the midwife, biting and scratching as many as he could.
Its shrill cries echoed through the sky as Emma closed her eyes a final time.
As my father finished relaying the twisted tale, a low growl rose from Champ’s ebony body. Seconds later, a thump on the tin roof of the house startled us to silence. Then, the eerie click-clack of nails against metal reverberated from the ceiling. My father quickly moved to his closet and took out his rifle. He reached for a box of bullets, and they spilled out all over the hardwood floor.
His hands trembled as he loaded the gun as quickly as possible. Before Mom or I could say a word, we heard the high-pitched wail echoing through the chimney.
“Marissa, double-check that all the windows are locked.”
Champ’s pointed ears were pinned back against his head and his snarls and growls turned into fierce barking. Having no success at seeing the unknown culprit, he began nervously pacing back and forth between different windows throughout the house.
“Something…I saw some kind of a strange form…moving quickly,” my mother called from the kitchen. “David, it’s there. I just saw it pass by.”
“I don’t see it, hon.” My father willed his voice to sound reassuring even though his fear rose. “It’s too dark.”
A scratching sound at the window on the other side of the family room alerted Champ, who got there first. But in an uncharacteristic move, he whimpered and turned from the window. With tail folded under, he hightailed it back to the safety of the sofa.
“Maybe I should go out there,” my father suggested.
“Are you crazy, David?” my mother whispered. “No one is stepping foot out that door. Not unless we have no other choice.”
We held our positions. The clock ticked out the seconds and minutes. We were suspended in time, waiting for something to happen.
Then it did. A blood-curdling, guttural cry and the sound of large wings snapping open and powerfully flapping through the night air. After that, all was quiet beneath the sliver of moon glowing upon our land.
Believe what you will, but it wasn’t long until we moved our lives across several state lines. Far away but not distant enough to erase the piercing reverberations that still cry from the deep recesses of our minds.
Jennifer Christiansen, a writer and school librarian, lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two miniature schnauzers. She is an animal advocate, traveler, bibliophile, and lover of all things dark and romantic.