From the Journal of Mike Pflug, Atlanta News
By Stephen Mark Rainey
It was 1977, and I was the Atlanta News & Record’s youngest full-fledged investigative reporter, fresh out of the University of Georgia Journalism School.
In my exuberant youth, investigative journalism was a different animal than it is today, involving painstaking research, exhausting legwork, considerable personal expense, and occasionally danger to life and limb. Nowadays, we are accustomed to having information at our fingertips, but when I was cutting my teeth, the Internet was barely a blip in young Al Gore’s neural network.
In the intervening decades, I have covered many stories that left me questioning everything I know or believe, but few have affected me more than the case I call “the Nothing.” It was one of my earliest independent assignments, and one that afforded me a glimpse into a realm that few human beings have ever witnessed — at least to date.
November 26, 1977. Ruby Valley, a small resort community in the north Georgia mountains, became the setting for a series of bizarre killings, which I was assigned to cover. Phillip Bragg, a graduate student at Georgia Tech, had decided to spend his post-Thanksgiving holiday hiking solo in the deep woods that surrounded the town. Phillip was an experienced backpacker, having taken some of his earliest steps on the Appalachian Trail in the company of his parents. The forest, which he had always dearly loved, would prove to be his final resting place — at least for those few parts of him that investigators managed to turn up.
The rugged trail leading from Ruby Lake into the mountains was hardly what one might call crowded, but Phillip had seen more hikers than he expected on a chilly, overcast November day, and it irritated him. He came to the woods seeking solitude, intent on communing with Mother Nature, free from the irritating hubbub of his daily urban existence. He had put in almost six miles this afternoon, and he hoped to go another mile or two before setting up camp for the night. At the moment, however, nature’s persistent call had prompted him to venture some distance into the woods, for he knew the moment he decided to urinate within view of the trail, other hikers would surely appear and accost him.
He had just completed his business when he heard the unmistakable sound of a human cough, uncomfortably close to his provisional latrine. He took a few steps in the direction of the sound, stepping lightly, curious but preferring to avoid contact with anyone else if at all possible.
There: a lone man standing with his back to him in front of a giant sycamore, seemingly scrawling something on its pale trunk — or rather etching it with some sort of stylus. After a few moments, the man stepped away to appraise his handiwork. He produced a large hunting knife and slowly, deliberately drew its blade across one palm — the sight of which sent a tingling tremor through Phillip’s lower regions. Then the man slapped his wounded hand over the design he had rendered, leaving behind a dripping, bloody print. He glanced around, briefly revealing his features, and then began to wander back toward the trail, never noticing Phillip crouching nearby. He appeared mid-to-late fifties, with close-cropped gray hair; a short, neatly trimmed beard; and wire-rimmed glasses, dressed in a black windbreaker and well-worn, straight-leg blue jeans. From this distance, Phillip could not quite make out the design carved in the tree, so once he was certain the man had moved on and wasn’t coming back, he crept to the sycamore and gazed at the blood-smeared etching.
It didn’t look like much of anything. A reverse S-shape bisected by a horizontal line inside a pair of concentric circles. Oddly, the deep red blood seemed to be seeping into the cuts, darkening their contours until the pattern took on the appearance of having been burned into the wood.
Then he noticed something else — a shimmering aura that appeared to be forming around the design, the blood in the deep cuts brightening until it resembled hot magma, moving and pulsing like something alive. He backed away, unable to believe he was witnessing something dangerous yet unwilling to remain in close proximity.
Then he saw it: some hint of smoke or mist that oozed out of the etching and trickled toward the ground, barely visible, yet somehow suggestive of a living creature — a huge, ghostly centipede crawling out from the tree and through thick foliage toward him. His nerve snapped then, and he turned and fought his way through thick vines and creepers, intent only on getting away from this insane spectacle.
A short distance ahead, he could see the trail. Chancing a look back, he felt his heart slam into his chest wall, for the shape had assumed an almost human form. A black shadow the size and shape of a large man, moment by moment becoming more defined, more solid.
Phillip hit the trail, his legs pumping like pistons on overdrive, but he didn’t know which direction he was going. Had he turned left or right? Was he heading back toward the lake or deeper into the darkening forest?
He looked back.
It was pursuing him. Gaining on him.
Black, featureless, still not quite substantial. Yet corporeal enough to take hold of him, jerk him off his feet, and hurl him into a cluster of small trees. He heard cracking as his body hit unyielding wood, felt something sharp puncture his left leg, became aware of hot blood running into his boot.
He craned his head back, gazed at the oncoming horror, and screamed a final scream.
Early the next morning, a pair of hikers discovered all that remained of Phillip Bragg, which amounted to little more than a few stray body parts and enough blood to designate as a new mountain lake. At my editor’s behest, I arrived in Ruby Valley a couple of hours later, and though I was in decent physical condition, by the time I made the six-mile hike out to the scene of the victim’s demise, accompanied by a stone-faced medical examiner and a less-than-chatty deputy, I was ready to collapse from fatigue. Once at the scene, however, all weariness fled, for what I saw most closely resembled the aftermath of an explosion in an abattoir.
I began taking pictures with my trusty old Nikon F2, working my way around barriers of yellow tape that resembled the webs of giant, drunken spiders. Looking around rather than down, I ended up stepping in a mass of black muck that I too late realized was some internal organ nestled in a bed of congealed blood.
“Hey,” came a gruff voice from behind me. “You’re not supposed to be on that side of the tape.”
“Atlanta news,” I said, turning and flashing my press badge. “I’ve got clearance to be here.”
“Not on that side of the tape, you don’t.”
The sheriff looked like a grizzly bear that had stumbled out of the woods and into an ill-fitting uniform. A pair of narrow, piercing eyes glared at me through a virtuoso scowl. “What’s your name, press?”
“Mike Pflug, Atlanta News & Record.”
“P-F-L-U-G. It’s German for ‘plowman.’ Sheriff, erm?”
“Snead. That’s American for ‘cross me, and I’ll kick your ass.’”
I gave him an earnest look. “So what do you think did this, Sheriff? With all your men out here, I’m guessing it wasn’t a bear or wildcat.”
“You see the medical examiner over there? Given time, I expect he will find for us some answers.”
“But Sheriff —”
Snead leaned close to me and growled, “I will talk to the press later. That’s spelled L A T E R.”
I nodded and took my leave, intent on getting as many photos as possible before Snead’s men completely worked over the scene. I had noticed one thing that convinced me this was no animal attack: while there were plenty of human footprints in the mushy earth, there was not a single animal track, certainly not from anything big enough to wreak such havoc on a human body. Most peculiar of all was that I saw no sign of any scavengers — no buzzards, no possums, not even any bugs.
It was as if whatever had done this was so awful, so monstrous, that it frightened away even the most voracious of nature’s cleanup crew.
I had noticed — happily, before any of the sheriff’s men — that some distance up the trail, something or someone passed through the woods, leaving a path of broken branches, crushed grasses, and torn vines. I followed this route of minor destruction for some distance, until I came to a most mystifying sight: a huge sycamore bearing on its pale gray trunk a peculiar, carved design. Its contours were black as pitch, as if the wood had bled tar wherever it was cut. To me, the etching meant nothing, though my most trusted inner voice whispered that, to someone, it must have been profoundly important.
I began taking photographs of the tree and the weird pattern, but a moment later, I heard a rustling sound, some distance to my right. At first, I could see only still, endless woods, the picture of serenity, but then I noticed movement — a shadow passing among the trees, moving slowly in my direction. I took it to be about the size of a man, though I could make out no details, no features.
Until it stepped out into the open.
Definitely a man. Or maybe definitely.
It looked like a very large male clad in some material that resembled tree bark. Sycamore bark, to be precise, for in places it sloughed off the arms and legs to reveal ghostly pale limbs underneath. The face, however… well, there wasn’t one. Only a dark, gaping opening in what must have been a hood, gray and coarse, also the texture of tree bark. The figure stood there regarding me, its half-crouched posture suggesting it was ready to spring at the slightest provocation. Despite knowing it was neither the politest nor wisest of greetings, I followed my instincts and snapped a couple of photographs.
I should have known better. A second later, the figure was gone. Not as in running away gone, but as in vanishing gone. To my eyes, his body had simply turned to smoke and dissipated among the trees.
But seconds later, the smoke reappeared, swirling, swimming, it seemed, through the air toward me. I began backing toward the trail, slowly at first, then in full retreat. I turn and ran, tripping over roots, tangling myself in vines and briers. When I finally reached the trail, I saw Sheriff Snead and one of his deputies approaching.
“Taking up jogging, Pflug?”
“Back there. A man. There was this tree, and smoke, and it was moving, and it came after me. I got pictures, I’ve —”
I broke off, gazing at my empty hands.
I had lost my camera.
It was back there somewhere, and right now I didn’t care how attached to the old thing I was, or how valuable my photos might have turned out, or how many deputies might be willing to accompany me, there was no way I was going back into those woods.
Very quickly, I came to realize by his expression that the only place Sheriff Snead might be interested in accompanying me was the nearest jailhouse.
November 29, 1977. Just a few miles outside of Ruby Valley, the Day Star Corporation — one of North Georgia’s preeminent real estate developers — had just finished clearing sixty-some acres of woodland for a new subdivision of luxury homes. Work crews had knocked off for the day, but shift foreman Preston Wheeler had remained at the site, as he often did, because it afforded him the chance to spend some quality time with his loyal friend, Evan Williams. Mrs. Wheeler, once a paramour of Williams’s second cousin, Smirnoff, had recently decided to sever all ties with members of the liquor family, for she believed they had begun to affect her in various adverse ways. In her zeal to “live clean,” she had laid down the law with Preston: no more drinking at home, period. While this inviolable edict inconvenienced him somewhat, he did enjoy partaking of good drink in the great outdoors, surrounded by the agreeable scents of turned earth and cut wood, free of endless nagging.
Unfortunately, this evening, Preston’s rendezvous with his favorite bourbon would prove his undoing, and the last scent he would know was the smell of blood. His own.
After a long day, Preston and his bottle had planted themselves in the cab of the big Cat earthmover parked at the edge of the woods, and he was enjoying the mellow buzz, the aroma of freshly cut cedar, and the near-absolute silence of the settling twilight. Out here, there was no strident haranguing, no condemnation for deficiencies in the willpower department.
As he took a long draw from the bottle, he noticed a swirling patch of mist around the bases of some nearby trees, maybe fifty feet away. No, he thought, not mist; more a vague, moving iridescence than any kind of discernible cloud. A weird, shimmering, swirling blotch of nothing.
The nothing was moving toward him, creeping across the flat, muddy earth like a huge, half-visible insect, or maybe a centipede. At first, he felt only a mild, detached curiosity, but then his internal alarm went off, piercing and insistent. Now, the nothing became something, coalescing into solid, opaque shadow, which slowly began to assume detail — finally becoming a tall, spindly thing with distinct arms and legs, seemingly clad in tree bark.
Where the thing’s face should have been there was only black, gaping emptiness. But it was looking straight at him. He could feel it.
The figure took a heavy step forward. Another, and then another.
Where it passed, the thing left no footprints!
With panic rising, Preston started to slide out of the seat on the opposite side of the Cat, but he had barely moved when a hot iron claw closed over the top of his head, preventing him from abandoning his machine. He felt a ripping pain in his head, a warm and wet sensation on his cheek, and a sudden, rushing dizziness. Something fell onto the seat next to him with a plop.
His right ear.
The claw closed around his throat, and he became aware of muscle, tissue, and bone compressing beneath sudden, unimaginable force.
Before he could even feel the pain, his consciousness fled forever.
With the second murder, the inhabitants of Ruby Lake became an unsettled, apprehensive, very vocal group that demanded answers — and arrests — from the authorities, who were becoming increasingly reticent. Given the pressures he faced, perhaps I should have been more charitable, but it was hard not to resent the fact that Sheriff Snead clearly would have preferred to shoot me — and just about any other reporter who dared question him — than offer a single word of comment.
With little hope of cooperation from the local authorities, I was left to my own devices to piece together what information I could about the killings. Despite the loss of my camera, my memory of the carved image on that tree was stark, burned indelibly into my brain. After countless hours on the phone with a range of contacts in Atlanta, which included librarians, book collectors, historians, and experts in various eclectic fields, an acquaintance of a friend of one of my contacts finally steered me to someone who thought he might have a clue what I was talking about.
His name was Dr. Troy Rieves, an elderly collector of antiquities, formerly a curator at New York’s Museum of Natural History. From his tone, I gathered he was happy just to talk to someone who might share his interest in anthropology.
“This symbol you’re asking about. Describe it in detail, would you?”
“A pair of concentric circles around what looks like a backward S. The ends have little flourishes on them. There’s a horizontal line running through its center.”
“You don’t by chance have any photographs, do you?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“I would very much like to see pictures, if you can possibly manage it. This is fascinating, most fascinating. You say it was carved into a tree?”
“Yeah. Its edges were dark, like they were filled with tar, or maybe even burned.”
There was a long silence. “You may have discovered quite a rarity, Mr. Pflug.” He cleared his throat. “Pflug. That’s Polish for ‘thick-skulled,’ I believe.”
“German for ‘plowman.’”
“Oh, of course, of course.” Another long silence. “Mr. Pflug, if this symbol of yours is what I suspect it is, then you’ve stumbled onto a very old mystery that no one has ever solved.”
“I don’t follow.”
“This design appears — rarely but definitively — among various forms of writing and art in several disparate cultures. In northern Europe, among the Druids. In ancient Java. Even amid early Native American symbols — Navajo and Apache. It would appear to be more than coincidence, yet no one has ever conclusively determined its meaning. Some scholars believe it’s a fertility symbol, others think it represents some kind of protection.”
“Protection? Against what?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“But it’s the same in all these different cultures?”
“That is the consensus.”
“I’ll be damned.”
“That’s what the experts say.”
“Dr. Rieves, if I were interested in finding the person who carved that symbol here in Ruby Valley, how would you suggest I go about it?”
The older man laughed. “Well, if this is what I think it is, it would have to be someone educated in a very specialized field. There aren’t many of us who qualify.”
“So, another museum curator, or maybe a college professor?”
“Conceivably. I’m not a detective, Mr. Pflug, so I think you’re asking the wrong person.”
“Believe me, you’ve been more helpful than anyone around here. I appreciate your time.”
“Don’t mention it. By the way. You said the outline of the design was ‘dark.’ Do you suppose that might have been dried blood?”
“Blood? I couldn’t actually say. Why do you ask that?”
“Because if it is, I’d say your artist has more on his mind than mere woodland graffiti.”
“Whoa,” I said. “What do you mean by that?”
Dr. Rieves fell silent. At last, he said, “Forgive me, Mr. Pflug. I was just thinking out loud. You’ve given me much to consider. I’d need to do more research before coming to any firm conclusions.”
I could barely refrain from grilling him on whatever ideas he must have had, but his tone indicated he had revealed all he intended, at least for now.
“All right, Dr. Rieves. But anything else you discover — I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know about it.”
The long silence was excruciating. Finally, he said, “Speaking with you has been most enlightening, Mr. Pflug. Good bye.”
Ruby Valley was a small community, but the prospect of locating a specific individual with nothing more to go on than the fact he might be well-versed in certain arcane lore struck me as beyond bleak. There weren’t as many tourists now as in the summertime, but even so, a fair percentage of the town’s population was transient. I couldn’t discount the possibility that our artist in question might have already left. Regardless, my intuition — which I trusted — assured me the archaic symbol in the woods was not just a clue but the key to identifying whoever was responsible for the killings.
The information Dr. Rieves had shared convinced me of one thing: regardless of my personal misgivings — and despite the authorities declaring the area off-limits — I had to revisit the design, get new photos, verify it was exactly as I remembered.
My story demanded it.
I didn’t own a gun, but I did have a canister of mace. Scant protection, perhaps, but better than none at all, so I slipped it into my jacket pocket.
It was early afternoon when I left the hotel. Parking my old Toyota Corona at the trailhead would be too obvious, but I had seen a logging road nearby that I doubted was currently in use. I only hoped I could make my way back to the site without getting lost, arrested, or torn limb from limb.
As always, I had turned on my police radio scanner, and as I was threading my way up and around the steep, curving mountainside, a chilling transmission came through: “All units in vicinity, proceed to new construction area, Scorpion Hollow connector off Ruby Lake Road. Possible 187, Code 3.”
I pulled over and grabbed my map of Ruby Valley from the glove compartment. As best I could tell, the location wasn’t far away, though I’d have to backtrack a few miles south to Ruby Valley and then drive west on what I took to be an only partially completed new road. Under the circumstances, my current errand would have to wait.
I broke every law in the book to be the first reporter on the scene, and when I arrived, I saw only three cars, one of them Sheriff Snead’s, parked at the red-and-white striped barricade. When Snead saw me, he gave me a glare that would have reduced Jesus Christ to tears. “Keep your distance, Pflug. No busybodies welcome.”
Beyond the barricade, a long, bulldozed expanse of bare earth cut through the dense woods, and I could see several individuals gathered around a twisted, red-and-black mass that might have been a body. Several yards away, closer to the woods, I saw another such mass.
Two sets of remains?
The sheriff appeared deep in conversation with a man wearing a hardhat, so I slipped into the woods and made my way, unseen, toward the second pile of human wreckage, which appeared to be a partial torso, one arm, and a heap of entrails. The smell nearly caused me to gag, but I got in close enough to snap several photographs. From here, I could see a disturbing number of random pieces of anatomy littering the roadbed, and I realized there might be more than two bodies among them. Again, I noted the absence of footprints in the soft earth.
“Dammit, Pflug, get away from there!”
I replied to Snead’s accusatory stare with a wave and as cheerful a smile as I could muster. I was about to return to the cover of the woods when I noticed a subtle movement among the nearby trees. Half-expecting to encounter the same bizarre figure I had seen at the first murder scene, I was more surprised when I found myself regarding a well-dressed, middle-aged man with a gray hair, a beard, and wire-rimmed glasses peering at me from the shadows. For a second, I wondered if he might be a witness cowering in fear for his life, but his expression appeared thoughtful, cautious. Furtive.
Our mysterious, elusive artist, perhaps?
I should have called to the sheriff so he might apprehend the man. Perhaps it was because I resented being treated like an ignoramus, but I wanted to get to this character before Sheriff Snead. Next thing I knew, I was rushing across the earthen roadbed, intent on reaching the man and wringing whatever answers I could from him on the spot. At least one deputy came running after me, and the figure in the woods turned and disappeared among the shadows.
I called out, “Hey, you!” and he paused and glared at me just long enough for me to snap a photo of him.
I turned to regard the approaching deputy. “You saw him, right? That man in the woods — it’s him. I guarantee you, it’s him!”
“Who? What?” the angry young man in uniform said, one hand reaching for the handcuffs on his belt.
I pointed back into the woods. “An older man. Right there. He just ran away.”
As I peered after the now-vanished figure, I saw something else: a half-visible shape that might have been a tree — or maybe a man — collapsing in on itself, becoming a mere tendril of smoky haze that wafted away into the woods.
Had I actually even seen anything?
Or was it nothing?
The victims were surveyors, three of them, sent to re-map an area in the path of the road where property boundaries had been called into dispute. I had escaped arrest by the narrowest of margins — only because my photograph of the stranger, which I convinced the sheriff to develop immediately, proved that a material witness to the killings might exist. Portrait quality it wasn’t, but Sheriff Snead posted the photograph in the local newspaper, on flyers around town, even on a billboard out on the highway.
That evening, I was sitting in my hotel room, typing up my notes for my editor, when a sharp knock came at the door. Expecting it to be the sheriff or one of his deputies, I almost fell over when I opened the door and recognized the gray hair, the beard, and the thick, wire-rimmed glasses.
“Mr. Pflug,” the man said in a soft, baritone voice. “A word, please.”
I stared dumbly at him until I regained my wits. To my dismay, I realized I had left my mace canister in my jacket, out of reach across the room. Reluctantly, I nodded. “Very well.”
He stepped inside, his demeanor confident. He might have been a well-heeled academic come to share meaningful conversation over a glass of wine. I closed the door behind him.
“I know you’ve been looking for me, and I will be willing to answer some of your questions — providing you agree to certain terms. First of all, let me say this. Actions speak louder than words, but sometimes, words reach the desired audience on a different level. An intellectual rather than an emotional level. You can help me with this.”
“You have me at a disadvantage.”
“Yes, I do,” he said and gestured toward the door. I saw nothing unusual until, after a few seconds, I discerned a vague, swirling discoloration in the intervening space. It began to coalesce into a dark column of smoke, insubstantial, but gradually assuming the contours of an anthropomorphic figure.
Good God. That thing I had seen out in the woods — it was here, only half-visible, yet entirely too real. And I had seen what it was capable of.
“I’ve come to appeal to you, Mr. Pflug. I need a mouthpiece, and you could admirably fill that role. I’m not here to harm you, but you take me less than seriously at your own peril. Do you understand?”
I nodded and motioned to my mini-cassette recorder on my desktop. “May I? It’s easier than writing, especially right now.” I raised my hand, and it was trembling.
He nodded, and I started the machine recording. “Now. I’m sure you’re aware of how rapidly humankind is destroying our natural environment. Forests being razed. Deadly pollution. Acid rain. Extinctions of countless endangered species. The human footprint keeps expanding, so it will eventually cover every inch of unspoiled land. It’s quite horrible.”
He glared at me so intently I did not dare challenge him.
“Eons ago, our ancestors recognized that human beings are as much a part of nature as the forests and the oceans. Man has no divine right to dominate every square inch of this planet. But we have no understanding, no respect, no integrity. I have spent years studying ancient lore, myths, legends, particularly those regarding man’s relationship with nature. When I discovered a certain commonality between unconnected cultures from ages past, you can imagine my surprise. And my delight. It spurred me to do something about the cancer that humankind has become.”
He nodded. “No one alive has ever fully understood it, not until I deciphered its true meaning. It’s a key. A key to the ancient powers that actually reside within the earth itself, dormant but aware. Eventually, of their own accord, they will awaken, and that will spell the end of everything we know. But until that time, little doors can be opened. With that innocuous pattern, someone with the right knowledge can offer them means to exert their influence. They have no shape. They’re like smoke. Yet they can assume guises that allow them to interact with us as they see fit. And you have seen how they see fit.” He smiled at me; a smug, vile, obscene thing.
“Now these woods are under their protection. There will be no further rampant development, no more destroying of life that has as much right to exist as we do. More, I think.”
A psychotic with a cause, I thought. Whether his cause had merit might be subject to debate, but what was not debatable to me was the hellish method he had discovered of “protecting” the local forests.
“Can you tell me — just who are you?” I asked.
He shrugged. “You may call me John. I will tell you that I grew up in this area. I have lived in several cities around the United States. I’ve been to many countries. I’ve taught in two major universities. But I am a simple steward, Mr. Pflug, and more than that, you don’t need to know.”
“All right,” I said, my eyes shifting toward the smoky, semi-visible shape hovering between us and the door. I wanted to disbelieve my senses, to convince myself that this man, this human being, was responsible for these shocking crimes. Human evil, however horrific, was a comprehensible, ultimately natural thing. Whatever John’s claim that the thing here was some force of nature, to me it was the single most unnatural phenomenon I had ever encountered.
“You came here looking for a story, and I am giving you one. But beyond that, you can warn people against trespassing where they cannot trespass and survive. You can, in your way, become as much a steward of nature as I am. You can save lives. As a journalist, what more could you ask for?”
“You make a powerful point.” My throat was so dry I could barely speak.
“One other thing. There will be many people who don’t understand, and some who might wish to retaliate against me. It is important they understand that I am the key. This fragment, this shadow you can almost see, it is only the tiniest reflection of what actually lurks beyond our perceptions. If anything happens to me, the forests themselves will tremble beneath the onslaught of the ancients. I myself shudder to think of the consequences.”
“No one else will be given this opportunity.” John took one step toward me. “I suggest you take it.”
I could only nod.
“Take as much time as you need. But bear in mind, the longer you wait, the more likely it is that lives will be lost.”
“I will,” I said, my voice a weak whisper, my eyes not on him but on the darkening shadow that almost resembled a man. I could now see hints of tree bark along its extremities.
Then it vanished. Became nothing.
John smiled again. “Write the story quickly, Mr. Pflug.”
“I knew a little more than I revealed to you on the phone,” Dr. Rieves said. “And I’ve learned a few things since then. You must understand why I have been so circumspect.”
“Of course,” I said, relieved — almost overjoyed — that he had seen fit to come to Ruby Valley from his home in Gainesville, about an hour away. I considered him my last hope, and he knew it. But the elderly man appeared solemn, introspective. Afraid. “You must believe there’s more danger in avoiding this man than actually facing him.”
“I do.” He raised an eyebrow. “And I gather do you too, now that you have met him.”
“I know that more people stand to die. And the chances of Sheriff Snead accepting any of what I’ve shared with you are about the same as the Pope becoming a Southern Baptist.”
He cracked a faint smile, but it quickly vanished. “I do not exaggerate when I tell you that what we must do is physically painful. And there’s no guarantee it will succeed. Are you willing to take this chance — based on research that has never been reviewed by another living soul?”
He had explained what we had to do, and the idea of it made me feel faint. “I have no choice.”
“No. You don’t. We don’t.” He opened a small leather satchel he had brought with him and withdrew a folded straight razor. “When you indicated there might be blood involved in the carving, I knew I had interpreted certain lines of the Druidic runes properly. It’s best I proceed with you first, Mr. Pflug. Then you. It will be difficult. Neither of us can flinch.”
When the blade bit into the bare flesh of my back, I nearly cried out in shock and pain. In my hands, I held a sheet of paper bearing the symbol he was etching into my skin: a pair of parallel, vertical lines with a semicircle atop them — almost resembling an umbrella — and a diagonal line projecting downward from the midpoint of the leftmost vertical line. One symbol of “protection” against another, both limned with human blood. Once he had completed his work, I would have to cut the same design into his chest.
Scalding hot, icy cold pain. It seemed to go on and on, and I could feel streams of warm blood running down my back until, finally, he said, “It’s done.”
I wondered if I might faint from both the physical and emotional shock of what I had just undergone — and the knowledge of what I still had to do. But when I looked at Dr. Rieves, I saw a stalwart, determined man, resolved to carry out our plan, however mad it might seem. He set about cleaning the razor with soap, water, and then alcohol. With no alternative but to follow his example, I steeled my nerves and accepted the razor when he handed it to me.
Still, it took me a couple of minutes to stop trembling and hold the razor without dropping it. I used an alcohol-soaked washcloth to cleanse his skin. I gazed at the drawn design until I felt it was burned indelibly in my mind’s eye. Then I began my work. Sweat and tears stung my eyes, and I had to stop three or four times to keep from cutting his flesh too deeply or drawing the symbol improperly.
But at last, I was finished.
Between us, two symbols: one facing forward, the other facing backward.
His theory — his belief — was that these countering symbols would render us invulnerable to assault by the thing I had come to call “the Nothing.” Our mission was to venture into the woods and totally efface the etching on the old sycamore.
Tears were oozing from his pain-bright eyes. It took most of an economy-size box of gauze pads and applying pressure to each other’s cuts before the bleeding diminished enough for us to get dressed without soaking our clothes with blood. We donned T-shirts, outer shirts, and jackets. Finally, Rieves gathered our equipment — a handsaw, flashlights, hammer, and reflector tacks — and with calm, deadly resolve led us out of the hotel to the parking lot. The sun was just setting, and the skeletal trees wavered in a chill evening breeze that might have been the breath of the Nothing itself.
We opted to take my car. Fifteen minutes later, I pulled in at the trailhead and drove right through the barrier of yellow police tape.
Six miles we had to hike to complete an errand that would likely cost us both our lives and perhaps prove as futile as trapping a ghost in a cage. Had I been alone, I probably would have fled, turned in my journalist’s credentials, and never sought another story for the rest of my life. But Dr. Rieves’s assured demeanor — however fragile it might actually be — bolstered my courage, tempered my urge to retreat from this remote, primeval place. As we made our way up the long, winding incline, through shadowy tunnels beneath tangled tree branches, I found myself hoping he could manage the distance, for he was no young man, the terrain was challenging, and his wounds, though superficial, had to hurt like the very devil.
As mine did.
I did my best to ignore the pain. Periodically, we paused, and Dr. Rieves would hammer a reflector tack into a tree trunk, always on the side opposite the trailhead. “If we’re in a hurry on our way back,” he said, giving me a bleak look, “our flashlights will illuminate the reflectors from a long distance. Better for us to see where we’re going.”
As we trudged onward, I focused only on each step, and the next, and the next, my senses becoming all but oblivious to the darkness, the cold, the cuts in my flesh. After some inestimable time, I made out several ribbons of police tape ahead, and I knew that we had almost reached our goal. My feet led me automatically into the woods toward the giant sycamore, my flashlight beam turning the trees into gnarled skeletons that cast menacing shadows.
“There’s something out here,” Rieves said, his eyes darting from tree to tree.
I felt it: an oppressive air that enveloped me like thick, oily smoke.
My God. What if our symbols didn’t work? This was nothing more than a deadly fool’s errand.
No! I had to cast such doubts from my mind. I had chosen to place my faith in Dr. Rieves, and it was too late to regret that choice. A few more steps, and I could see the sycamore: a mammoth, monster of a tree, seemingly sentient and hostile. From its trunk, about head-high, a series of spidery lines began to glow, as if some internal light source had ignited. It was the carved symbol, burning like a blood-red beacon, its contours stark and vivid in the darkness, and I detected a hot, acrid, petroleum odor — the very stench of the underworld, it seemed.
Rieves lifted his handsaw and placed its teeth against the upper rim of the glowing pattern, angling the blade so it would bite into the pale sapwood. Taking a deep breath, he drew the saw backward, cutting deeply, and splintering the symbol’s uppermost curve.
From all around us, the woods erupted with sound. A screeching, trumpeting noise, shrill but deep — a sound that might have issued from a wounded mastodon. His blade bit the wood again, carving off a section of the outer circle, and the screech grew shriller still.
Behind us, a heavy, powerful pounding began. Footsteps. The Nothing was near, and though the symbols etched in our flesh had surely protected us to this point, I now believed our time must have come.
“Take the saw,” Rieves said, handing it over to me. “I’m not strong enough to keep going. Cut deeply, but at an angle. Shave it off. Leave no trace.”
“No!” came a sharp voice from behind us.
I turned just long enough to see the madman, John, his previously imperturbable features twisted in rage. He was rushing at us from the direction of the trail, and it occurred to me that, while our symbols might shield us from that hellish, otherworldly threat, John himself could murder us both.
He grabbed Dr. Rieves and flung him backward into the darkness. One foot lashed out, connected with the older man’s rib cage, and I heard an agonized cry. Then John turned toward me, his expression furious, disbelieving — desperate.
I made another cut, gouged out more of the design, the heavy pounding penetrating every cell of my body, jarring my bones, scrambling every thought in my head.
Until I realized it had stopped.
I cut another portion of the symbol away. Not a sound came from the woods, not even a whisper of breeze. I dared looked back. And then up.
I mouthed “Oh, my God,” but no sound came out.
The Nothing was as huge as the sycamore itself, its massive limbs gnarled and muscular, sheathed in cracked, rough bark the color of corpse flesh. It seemed to glower over me, challenging me, daring me to continue my effort to destroy it.
It could not touch me. It could NOT touch me.
I made another cut, and more than half the symbol was obliterated. John now launched himself at me for a full-on body slam, and I braced myself, knowing I could scarcely bear the brunt of such a violent collision.
It didn’t come.
Above me, the Nothing had frozen, become as motionless as the trees around us. Black smoke began to dribble from its bark-like hide, and even as I watched, it seemed to wither, its massive form becoming insubstantial, ghostly. Next to its trunk-like legs, John was frozen in mid-spring, his body a marble statue, his mouth gaping in disbelief, his eyes rolled upward to gaze as if in longing at the thing he had brought forth.
I drew the saw back again, rendering all that was left of the symbol unrecognizable, leaving just a few, blood-red lines gleaming dully in the ghostwood.
The Nothing wavered like the image from a weakening signal on a television screen. Smoke was billowing around it now — not as when it shifted its malleable physique, but like something dissolving. The smoke enveloped the frozen madman, obscuring his body.
I made another cut, and the last glowing remnants of the symbol went dark.
Then — the Nothing was gone.
As was its summoner.
I stood there shaking, certain I was dreaming or madder than the madman who had brought us here. After some time, I realized Dr. Rieves was still lying on the ground several feet away, unmoving. I started toward him, but the protective symbol, so freshly cut in my skin, flared with such intense pain that I dropped to my knees with a low moan. I crawled to the prostrate figure and touched his shoulder.
He did not move.
Dr. Rieves, my benefactor, was dead.
John’s real name was Charles Johansen. He had been a professor of anthropology and sociology at Yale University and more recently at the University of Virginia. He originally came from Rhode Island. Never married, always devoted to his work.
Reputedly quiet, reserved, soft-spoken. All his students had loved him.
Johansen had settled in Ruby Valley several months prior to the events he had set in motion, but he had made no friends and kept mostly to himself. Few people recollected ever having seen him.
The powers-that-be at my newspaper had carefully excised the most telling details of my story, and those parts that remained simply told of a rabid environmentalist who had gone over the edge and managed to murder a number of innocent people by means “as yet undetermined.”
Dr. Rieves had died of “myocardial infarction after attempting a strenuous hike into the woods.” I professed no knowledge of the symbol cut into his skin and afforded no one else the opportunity to examine its identical twin etched in my back, the scars from which I bear for life.
All these decades later, the knowledge of what I saw, what I did, still haunts me; and now, someone, somewhere, appears determined to carry on Charles Johansen’s work. I have recently come into possession, by way of an unknown sender, a number of very familiar photographs. I say familiar, for by all appearances — the age of the prints, the unforgettable contours of the symbol carved in sycamore bark — they came from my own Nikon camera, lost on that night in November 1977. As far as I knew, it was never found, the photographs never recovered.
Clearly, I was wrong. I can only conclude that Charles Johansen himself found my camera and developed the images. He must have had one or more acolytes who have, after all these years, learned not only the secret of the ancient symbol but also my identity. Along with the old photos, the sender included several newer ones — the same symbol carved in what appears to be the trunk of a beech tree, obviously in a different location.
As of now, I have no idea where that location may be, though I fear it’s only a matter of time before some poor hiker or lumberman or construction worker may detect a vague shimmering in the air and pass it off as nothing — until the Nothing becomes something and begins its fearsome work anew.
For dealing with the possibility of encountering the human being or beings responsible for tracking me down, I have finally broken down and purchased a gun. For that most unthinkable prospect — the return of the Nothing itself — I can only pray the scars in my flesh will again shield me from its awful power, and that, if necessary, I will have the wherewithal to pass on Dr. Rieves’s legacy just as he passed it on to me.