I wrote this short story as a part of a quarantine Halloween Zoom party. It’s based on a true story, and told from the perspective of my great-grandfather Frank Forry.
I have a tale of warning and concern to tell you tonight.
Earlier this year, this treacherous year of 1918, we had a tragedy happen right here on the Forry Farm. (We like to call the farm “Wildcat Ridge.”) It’s the saddest chapter on the farm since we moved here in 1912. And that is saying quite a lot, considering the state of the world at the moment.
The war is still happening in Europe, and servicemen are living in a hellscape of trench warfare and death. There’s an election for president this year. And just this month, the Iowa Board of Health put the whole state under some kind of quarantine due to the Spanish flu. I hear that the paper down in Cedar Rapids prints a tally of all the people that died in each edition.
You’d think we could escape from all of that madness here on the farm, but sadly, death descended upon Wildcat Ridge in an unspeakable way back in January.
Now, owning a piece of ground is a funny thing. You know how it is with friends and family – I might own it, but lots of people use it. Whether it’s deer season or just a horse ride through, everybody wants to take in this beautiful patch of land, away from the rod-straight streets of town or the endless flat expanses of farm ground, hemmed in by barbed-wire fence.
The ridges and hollows down in the timber on the north slope are like nothing you’ve seen before. Oaks and ironwoods as far as you can see. Ponds and streams that lead to the gentle flow of the Shell Rock River on its northern-most border. Every season here has its own magic. Wildflowers emerge in spring, summer’s heavy, hissing greenery, fall’s leaves crunch and mushrooms fruiting, and the bright drifts and short days of winter’s snow. No wonder everyone wants to hang out here.
This January deal was no different. Ed and Lelah Neal’s boy Burr Neal and his friend Edmund Scharpof wanted to go sledding down in the timber. They were both 14, definitely old enough to do a day’s work on the farm. Letting them go sledding was a rare distraction from the hard days on a shovel or pitchfork.
They’d walked here with their sled knowing that the hills in the timber are some of the steepest in the township. The highest slope is just to the north and west of the rest haven a little camping mezzanine we’ve set up for enjoyment, about halfway to the river.
The ironwood trees really like that slope. They grow like weeds down there, and that wood is as hard as nails. We’re always cutting them down, leaving stumps here and there for the possums to perch on.
I don’t know the exact details of it all, but I do know that they would take turns on that sled, going as fast as they ever have on anything, save for a horse in a rare, full gallop. That hill is steep but treacherous, and anyone knows that you can’t really steer a sled. You can sort of give it advice on which way to go, but once it’s going, that sled ain’t stopping.
Let’s be honest – these boys are growing up in Clarksville, and they don’t have too many thrills outside of fresh raspberries in the summer and the occasional glance or wink from another pigtailed 14-year-old Clarskvillian.
What do you do when the thrills are few and far between? You find more daring and dangerous ways of doing things. Maybe you let that sled go a little faster. Maybe you take more of a running start to get it going. Or maybe you go on the steepest part of the hill with the most stumps, sure that you can weave in and out.
Edmund probably had his fastest sled ride of the day, and Burr wanted in on that rush, too. He took his turn with a long running start, almost leaping down the top of the hill head-first with that sled glued to his chest. “The fastest sled in Butler County,” he probably thought. Mittens damp, heart racing, tears at the outside corners of his eyes from the cold and wind.
And then BOOM. It was over. Burr hit one of those ironwood stumps. Edmund told me that his body flopped and convulsed after he hit it. That stump broke his neck in less than a second, ending the timeline for Ed and Lelah’s firstborn son.
Again, I wasn’t on the hill, but I imagine that Edmund momentarily regressed into a child’s state, his voice cracking as he shouted at Burr, hoping that he was ok. “If Burr gets hurt bad, Frank ain’t gonna let us sled down here again,” he thought. But it was much worse than revoking sled privileges. Burr was dead.
Edmund ran up the north road to our homestead, scared out of his mind. We both went down there as quickly as we could, though the snow makes for slow-going on foot.
There he laid, his neck twisted in a way you never see on the living. You could tell that the stump hit him right on the forehead and face. The blood that sprayed and spilled from his mouth was still bright on the snow. The heat of life in his blood melted some of the snow right down to the fallen leaves underneath. This day, the forest floor met with the blood not of a deer, but of a human taken too early.
His skin was already cold. Edmund and I put him on the sled and again made our way back to the top of the hill. We brought his lifeless body uptown to the doctor, but it was far too late to do anything.
This all happened on the 5th of January, this year, and has caused me great consternation each day that passed since. This war, this presidential election, this disease atop this death in the woods is almost more than I can manage.
Like all Forrys before me, the advice is to take to the woods to ease your mind. And so I did just that, hoping that returning to the woods would bring peace and calm. But it did not. Two days later, a fresh skiff of snow covered all of the blood, all of the tracks from that day, and even the stump that severed Burr’s spine.
But what I don’t understand is why there are FRESH tracks around that stump, with the same type of Sears & Roebuck overshoe footprints that Burr wore. I’ll see things out of the corner of my eye, but no one else has set foot down here – it’s too soon for most.
It can’t be a ghost. Ghosts aren’t even real. I’ve heard people talk about ghosts after the Number 19 passenger train derailed north of town, killing 16 people in the cold Flood Creek two years ago, but I’ve never believed those tales. They talk of hearing screams at 3 in the morning, the same time those passengers plunged into the river.
This situation seems different. It’s not just screams. It’s tracks, tracks at that very location. When the snow melted, I couldn’t see them anymore, and I sort of let it drift from my mind. But these early October snows have brought it all back. The tracks are there again. And there are more of them. This spirit is becoming more active, more agitated.
I’m not sure what is going to happen next…