“The Whispering of the Lights”

Camping in the southern Pennsylvania mountains over the Fourth of July weekend has been a tradition of mine since I was boy. When I was a child, my parents would take my sister and I down into the forested hills where the Blue Ridge Mountains pushed up north from Maryland, where we would hike and camp, enjoying the beauty of the wild countryside during the day and be delighted by the distant fireworks displays at night. Even when we all grew older and my parents no longer had the stamina for camping and my sister no longer had an interest, I would go. During college and after I would sometimes be able to get friends to come along with me, but as the years passed, it became more and more common for Fourth of July weekend to be my own little pilgrimage into the wild.

And that’s how I found myself alone in the woods the weekend that I saw the lights.

I had arrived in the field early in the morning, having risen before dawn with my gear already packed and ready to hit the road as soon as I had showered. I made my way quickly into the hills, finding a good place for camp a few hours before noon and setting up – stringing my camping hammock between two trees, collecting firewood for later, hoisting my pack with most of my food for the weekend up off of the ground – before wandering off higher up into the hills. I hiked up and down the mountains for most of the day, only heading back to camp when forest began to darken. I built a fire and roasted hot-dogs and marshmallows while the sky above me darkened to a deep, navy blue, then black, then was bejewelled with a mantle of diamond-like stars. I watched a few early fireworks shows that popped and sparkled in the distance, then relaxed into the solitude of the dark, forest night, listening to the sounds of bugs and the movements of animals in the surrounding underbrush.

My sleep that night, suspended in my hammock, was relatively undisturbed. I remember waking for a few moments in the darkness, the soft glow of the coals from my campfire the only visible light, and hearing what sounded like indistinct whispering. Not being quite lucid, I simply rolled as best as I could within the hammock and slipped back into sleep.

I awoke with the dawn, one of my favorite experiences of camping. No alarms, no mechanical sounds. Just the natural rising from the depths of sleep and dream back into the world of waking. I emerged from the cocoon of my hammock and stumbled my way to the nearby cliff so as to relieve the pressure on my bladder. Once finished, I enjoyed the auroral landscape that stretched out below me, painted in fresh golden light and deep shadows clinging to the last vestiges of their nocturnal reign. As I made my way back to my camp, I noticed a disturbance in the underbrush: broken branches, crushed plants, and marks in the dirt that I couldn’t tell if they were footprints of a sort or some kind of impact craters. Shaking my head slightly, I continued on, attributing the signs to one of the local animals and leaving it at that.

I spent the day roaming the mountain and, once again, as the shadows under the forest’s canopy began to deepen and darken, I made my way back to camp. Once more, I cooked my evening meal over the campfire and watched the night sky light up with explosive, colorful displays along the horizon. Before heading to sleep, however, I noticed a strange glow in the sky on the other side of the mountain, but with the peak between myself and the soft light, I assumed that it was just more fireworks. Thinking nothing more of it, I slipped into my hammock and drifted contentedly into sleep.

How long I was asleep, I don’t know, but I woke in the night to feel the call of nature and clumsily emerged from my cocoon-like hammock. I stumbled a few yards into the trees before I noticed that there was a deep and thick fog roiling slowly and hypnotically among the roots and trunks. I paused in my mission to relieve myself, confused by the omnipresent mist, and slowly turned in a circle, looking all around me. Through the mist, I could lights dimly in the distance: white and red and greenish-blue. Unthinking, I found myself walking deeper into the mist toward the lights, entranced by their flickering movement and their shifting colors, all while being vaguely aware of whispered voices swirling around me in the mist-shrouded trees.

My feet continued moving under their own volition, taking me unerringly toward the lights and as I approached closer, I became aware of silhouettes dancing between the trees around me. Some were humanoid, others monstrously not, but all of them seemed to skirt the edges of my path among the trees. The lights grew brighter and brighter as the distance between them and myself grew smaller, hurting my eyes but I couldn’t bring myself to look away or even choose the respite of closing my lids.

It is at that point that my memory becomes blurry. I vaguely remember accepting a drink from…someone, there in the light. I have spotty memories of walking somewhere — a vast plain, filled with knee-high grass — and standing before an immense, black stone that glimmered reflectively in the strange starlight. I could see the distorted image of my own reflection in its onyx surface, along with the inhuman visages of others standing behind me. The whispers were laced through everything, asking questions of me and enticing me onward toward acts that I cannot remember.

I woke in the morning, lying underneath my hammock. A dull ache suffused my body and it took only a few moments for me to see that a mild burn covered most of my exposed skin. Tenderly, I pushed myself to my feet and made my way into the trees to relieve my full and aching bladder. As I finished, my mind consumed with dizzied and confused thoughts of the previous night’s strangeness — which I assumed was just some weird dream — I looked off into the forest and saw someone looking back at me. I caught only a fleeting glimpse — swarthy skin, canted eyes, masculine features, a dark suit — before I flinched and cried out in surprise, looking away as I tried to cover myself and zip up my pants. When I returned my gaze to the onlooker, they were gone.

I spent twenty minutes searching the woods for the strange man, but found not a single trace of him. With that disturbing encounter weighing on me, I returned to camp and collected my things as quickly as I could, making for the base of the mountain with all speed that I could safely muster. As I packed my things into my trunk and slid behind the wheel, I cast one last glance up at the mountain that had provided so many memories, so much joy in my life, and knew that I would never return.

Nicholas Egelhoff © 2015

Advertisements