But he was there, hip deep in the mist, and tipped his hat back on his head, smiled at me. “Well, c’mon now. I wanna get back ‘fore your ma gets home, I told ya. It ain’t too far. We can do it all pretty quick, but you need to move along, y’hear?”
I tried to speak, to tell him forget it, to tell him I didn’t want to know, wouldn’t ever get near the path again, and I was sorry, please don’t make me go, but he winked and held his hand out to me. And I couldn’t stop myself from reaching out, and stepping down to take his hand. With a fluttering heart like a bird frantic in your hand, I followed his confident, great strides down into the mist. I turned once, just once, and watched that narrow opening between the two great guardian trees at the opening of the path as it shrank before the mist rose up and hid it from me.
The path was cooler here, darker and wetter, and smelled like thick woods and dead leaves and pine and moss. Everything dripped, and fern fronds waved at us from the sides of the path as we walked. It felt like the fog parted before us as we went and closed behind us, giving us a less dense bubble of forested view. Things seemed to grow deeper, denser, thicker, taller and wider here. I shuddered at the thought of leeches the size of those red rubbery balls we kicked on our playground at school, or spiders bigger than old Whisper, the ancient hound my granddaddy had. I expected pterodactyls to screech overhead and allosaurs to crash through the tangled, dense thickets and devour us. I waited for gargantuan flying insects to swoop on us, and sting with stingers the size of steak knives. The forest here was primeval, prehistoric, predatory.
Daddy looked back on me. I figure he felt my palm sweating in his. He smiled down. “Don’t worry, it’s just the woods. No differ’nt than any other woods in these parts.”
I wanted to believe him, wanted to trust in my daddy, but my heart wouldn’t slow down no matter how I tried, and every crackled twig underfoot, every swishing branch we pushed aside to get past, every dropping leaf from the golden, orange, red and green trees, made me jump, made me flinch.
But daddy held my hand and we kept walking, deeper into the fog, deeper into the woods, deeper into the hollow.
The path bent and wound and wove through the trees, and daddy walked it sure and without hesitation, just like he’d done it every day of his life though I’d never seen him here before. After a time, he let go of my hand and ducked down to pass under a huge limb snaking over the path and vanishing into the mossy, green, wet thicket on either side.
Not long after, I saw another opening in the dense brush, just off to the right while the path twisted hard to the left. Daddy reached back and took my hand and gave me a gentle, firm tug to steer me after him as we kept on down the path. He secured his footing and turned to me.
“Now,” he said, “there are places were there seems to be another way to go. Don’t follow ‘em, ‘cause it’s easy to wander into the woods and maybe get lost. Stay on the path, y’hear?” His face was earnest and serious, and I couldn’t quite identify something in his voice. Later, when I thought about our hiking trip through those wet woods into the hollow, I realized it might’ve been the same flash I’d seen on his face when I asked about the path before.
Fear? I don’t know now. Too many years gone by to remember for sure.
I nodded, but my gaze drifted back to that parting in the undergrowth, where the fog seemed thicker still and to spill out, like it came from there, its source, its origin, hidden back behind that wall of mist.
“Don’t stray off the path, now,” he said again and snapped my eyes back to his. “I mean it. Stay on the path. Like I told you before, we want to be back before your mother.” I gave another nod, and he affirmed it with one of his own, then stood up and we went on.
I watched that fog-spewing hole as long as I could until the path bent on down the hill and vanished.
After that, it didn’t take long for us to pass through the hollow. A short run of grass overshadowed by big trees, old when the Union and Confederacy hunted each other and fired muskets at one another, rambled and crawled to the banks of that old, black water creek, rocky and round and gurgling. I stood in awe, of both the man and the sight, the twisted course of water dancing away into the trees as it bent away from me in both direction, opened to a wider pool in front of us. My daddy squeezed my hand and smiled down at me.
“Feel better ‘bout that path now?” he grinned, and winked at me. I smiled in spite of myself, and watched the water frolic for a moment before he turned me back. “C’mon, let’s git. Your ma will have our hides if we ain’t about to help with dinner and chores.”
He took a few steps up the bank and I followed after giving the creek one last glance. There were no fish in it, no bugs, no frogs piping … just the playing, dancing water. I thought, before I trotted after my dad, that was unusual.
I held my father’s hand all the way back so he could help me up the slick, dripping incline toward home. I tried not to look down that secondary branch off the path that spilled the fog. I noted my father told me the fog came from the creek and slithered up the hollow on the path, but I also found the banks of the creek were clear. The path was the only thing shrouded in fog. And I can’t be sure now, not after so many years, but I thought my father hurried past that second branch and cast a sidelong glance at it and checked the position of the sun’s weak beams through the trees as we did.
We beat ma home, by the way. When we stepped out of the narrow path onto the firm, gravelly flat of the lot again, I gave one last backward glance down the hill into the perpetual mist, teasing and taunting. I felt something pounding up that hill, slathering, frothing and baying, glowing, glowering eyes piercing the mist as it came, and a shiver chased from my backside up my spine to rattle my head. I ran then, ran to catch up with my daddy and I followed him into the house watching over my shoulder the whole time.
That was my second trip down that path into the hollow. And I’m ready to make my third now, so many years later.
I was visiting, hunting with Daddy and Granddad that weekend. We sat on the porch, watching the autumn shadows stretch lazy and long over the hills as the sun started to sink into the ocean of trees and peaks stretching to the horizon. Daddy and granddaddy were sitting around whittling on the porch when the pickups and open Land Cruisers rattled and clanked up the drive. They both stopped and perked a brow, my father his right, my grandfather his left, and watched as the convoy of three or four beat-up, rust-bucket old jalopies pulled in front of the cabin. Ma came out to the porch, wiping her hands with her apron, one wild lock of hair twisting down her forehead while she swatted at it with an absent gesture.