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- Story Listed as: Fiction For Adults
- Theme: Drama Stories / Human Interest Stories
- Subject: Horror / Scary Stories
- Published: 06/07/2011
Under The Blackberry MountainBorn 1958, M, from Vancouver, WA, United States
Under The Blackberry Mountain
“Swimming sounds good,” Mark said. I agreed. Danny did not say anything; he always agreed, but today was even more agreeable than usual. It was mid-morning toward the middle of August, with scorching weather driving the thought that we were in our last month of summer break from our minds. But, that was not what was making Danny so agreeable.
“He’s in love,” I said, as an aside to Mark.
“Wonderful,” Mark said, nudging Danny with his foot. “Cheryl?”
“Cheryl.” I grabbed Danny and pulled him standing. We were sitting on my front porch looking out at the hard blue of the day. “Swimming is just what we need to bring him back from la-la land.”
We were twelve years old then, the three of us. And there was no surprise that we were together on that blisteringly hot August morning; we were always together, Mark Miland, Danny Kennedy and me, Barrett Jennings. We’d been together as long as any of us could remember. It was our transition summer between grade school and junior high, and we found ourselves trying to deal with the looming specter of growing up. This process had been dealt a setback by Danny falling for Cheryl.
Cheryl Bonham was one of us: a part of our circle, off and on. Not a part of it when the activity was a guy activity, but one of us when it was general, all-purpose mischief. Now that she was beginning to turn more into a girl than a buddy, we sometimes had to convince each other to let her in on what we were doing, at least until Danny decided she was worth being around for other reasons.
The path down to Thompson’s creek ran from the graveled end of south 7th Avenue where I lived, through an overgrown field, past an ancient prune dryer, around the blackberry mountain, and along the rocky spine bordering the swamp. It ended at Thompson Creek road. Cross that and you were at Thompson Creek. Up the creek a ways, before you got to the bridge, was a wide turn in the creek, and a nice place to go swimming.
We walked single file through the field, until we came to the old prune dryer, and decided to sit inside for a moment, just to get out of the sun. We sat on the edge of the floor, just inside the door, staring out at the tangled wall of the blackberry mountain. Each variation of color that existed in the massive tangle stood against the blue sky, radiating, verdant, fertile. It was a living thing basking in the heat, waiting.
There was history there in that luxuriant growth. Stories that older kids told related everything from stashed dead bodies of careless children to ghosts, plate-size spiders, and vampires inhabiting the belly of the pile. I had gone inside once; to the best of my knowledge neither Danny nor Mark ever had.
“You ever wonder what is really under there?” Mark asked. He was tall at twelve years old, wiry but strong. His crossed arms showed the striations of muscles beneath skin that neither Danny nor I had yet. “You’ve heard the stories, haven’t you, Danny?” Danny shook his head.
“Yeah, I have,” I said. “Don’t know if I believe them or not.”
“This whole field used to be a prune orchard,” Mark continued. “Belongs to Old Man Thompson. My Dad said he let it go when his wife left him.” Mark leaned closer to Danny, said, in a quieter voice: “And they say that underneath the blackberry mountain is the gravesites of the Thompson family.”
“Old Man Thompson’s still alive,” Danny said, not letting Mark get to him. “You can’t see the house from here, but it overlooks the swamp.”
Beyond the blackberry mountain, the land became steep and rocky. On the left was a ridge of stone we called the Dragon’s Backbone. The past ridge was a steep drop into the swamp. To the right past the blackberry mountain was the edge of a forest that circled the base of Spotted Deer Mountain like a nest.
The swamp was created when the built up roadbed for Thompson Creek road cut off a tributary to Thompson’s Creek. The crew that built the road left an ineffective culvert for the water to pass under.
Even on the brightest of days the swamp was a place of shadows and darkness, shaded by unhealthy trees forced to grow there only because of the ill luck of their seeds landing in the mud. It was a place where rotting tree stumps jutted eerily from the still pools of scum-covered water. Salamanders and bug-eyed insects infested the half submerged logs and thick tussock grass. Moss hung from the branches of the trees, and snakes slithered everywhere, darting in and out of the scarce light. We'd searched it a hundred times, wading through the slime, sitting quietly on an exposed face of stone while watching the life in the fens move slowly past.
“Let’s go under and see if it’s true,” Mark said. “I know where the entrance is.”
“So do I,” I said. “But, I thought you wanted to go swimming?”
“Real quick, just to take a look. It’ll give us bragging rights. What do you say, Danny.”
Danny just shook his head. “I don’t care.”
“Maybe you can take Cheryl there on your first date,” Mark said, smiling and nudging Danny again. There were other rumors about going under there with girls that we all had heard.
Since I was the only one who had been under the blackberry mountain before, it was decided I would lead as we dropped to our hands and knees at the entrance. There were new shoots of vine blocking the entrance, thick enough to make pushing them off to the side a painful chore. Once inside, the smell of blackberries was mixed with the smell of dust and sour dirt. The floor of the tunnel was a thick carpet of dead blackberry leaves and mummified fruit; our hands sank in at least an inch as we crawled along.
“It’s hot in here,” Danny mumbled. “Stinks, too.”
I tried to visualize and keep track of how far we had crawled. “Just coming up on half way,” I guessed. The tunnel had begun to get noticeably wider. Maybe we were getting close to the center.
The center: where the bodies of dead children rested in eternal secrecy; where monster spiders and vampires lived.
The center had none of those things, and even less than the three of us anticipated. It was not that big, having enough room for the three of us to sit with legs crossed, claiming our own corners so that we could squint through the gloom at each other.
“This has got to be the center,” I said.
“I thought you’d been in here before.” Mark said.
“Not this far. I followed a dog in, but turned around real quick.”
Danny sat appearing to be tired. “Let’s just forget this and get out.”
Mark was looking around at the low hanging ceiling on the center of the mountain. He brushed his hands across his face, ridding his skin of the feeling of a spider web clinging there.
“What do you think?” I asked him.
“It is hot. I hate it here. We can say we been here and didn’t see anything,” he answered. “I say lets get out and go swimming.”
“Okay, sounds good. Let’s go.” But, which way?
In the gloom we could not tell where the tunnel back to the outside world began. Without saying anything we three began crawling around in tight circles, hoping to run into a void in the thicket of blackberry vines. Where I found empty spots in the tangle, I moved forward, always looking side to side, moving my hands before me so that I did not crawl face first into waiting spikes. Once or twice I had to back out and try a different direction.
To this day, when I think about it, I cannot place exactly when I realized I was alone.
Looking behind I tried to see as well as listen for Danny and Mark. There was nothing, no sight or sound; only the smells of the blackberry mountain’s belly, and the gray light that surrounded me. “Guys?” I said to the grayness. “Mark; Danny!” The sound of my voice died flat.
Starting back the way I had come, my knee came up against what I first thought was a stone in the ground. The pain flamed through my kneecap and I fell forward, rolling on to my side. I yelled, squeezing my eyes shut, but feeling the tears as they leaked around the edges of my eyelids. When the pain began to subside into an ache, I swept my hand over the ground looking for the rock. I did not want to jam any other part of my body against it when I continued through the tunnel.
What my hand came up against was not a rock, but a loop of metal, maybe rebar. I dug out around it and found it was a piece of metal rod bent in a loop. It was a fashioned handle, and I swept the dirt away from it and found both ends of the handle imbedded in concrete. The pain in my knee had subsided to the point where I could put my weight on it. Getting back up onto my knees I put both hands on the metal loop and pulled.
And it seemed that the earth responded.
The sound was terrifying, as if some great machine beneath me had suddenly come to life, throbbing with a deep, gutteral metallic voice. The ground moved, causing me to lose my balance. I fell on my left side still holding onto the metal loop. Dust filtered down on me like flour through a sifter, and leaves, dead and black, tumbled on to me from above. I felt sudden fear that the concrete would break in half and open up into some bottomless chasm, spill me in, swallow me, and hold me forever.
When the earth quit moving, a hole had opened up in the floor of the earth.
The space under the blackberry mountain was filled with a hideous green glow. The hue of green was like rotting neon and it all came from that hole in the earth. With the light came a hideous, sickly sweet, odor like meat that has rotted in a moist place, fly blown with maggots and slime. The smell was so intense I felt it on the skin of my face, crawling up my nose, burning my lungs.
A part of my brain – the ancient, reptilian part of my brain - told me that I should not look, not stay here, that I should crawl away. I ignored its warning. It seemed to me then that I had no other choice but to look down into that hole.
As my face entered the pillar of green light, cold stagnant air rush past, and the light went out. I saw nothing but black until my eyes adjusted. Slowly, an image became distinct in the darkness and it was like looking at a picture or a movie of a nighttime desert landscape. Ripples in the sand stretched away until the desert blurred with darkness and distance.
Above the horizon shone a cold, hard white light, moving slowly and steadily against the black. I watched its course across the night sky until suddenly all was obliterated by the sudden onrush of roiling, debris choked water.
Recoiling, I saw something come up through the hole, something undefined but exuding a mixture of emotions that swept through me momentarily: terror and jubilation, terrified of the water, but jubilant to be free.
And I had set it free.
What had escaped was gone, and all that remained was the sound of water, a terrible destructive tide running over the land. The ground twisted again, and I lost consciousness.
When I opened my eyes I was being dragged through darkness, the twisted branches of thick, petrified blackberry vines turning in loops around me. I screamed, and I stopped.
“If you can move on your own, then do so!” a voice said. It was coming from above my head, up the dark tunnel. It was deep, resonant in the surrounding dark. “I am grateful to you for releasing me. I have been trapped for so long. You are not safe. You must go, now!”
Panic and pain dominated. My knee still ached. My back was sore from being dragged through the tunnels. My mind was a blank, black, seething place where voices and ghosts tumbled against each other.
And behind it all, the sound of rushing water.
I crawled forward, changing direction only when I brushed up against thorny walls. Panic surged through me as I fought to find my way out of that place. I could still feel on my arm where whoever dragged me had held me. Was that some way to show gratitude at having released it from wherever it had been? I pushed that thought from my mind and continued my panicked search for the exit.
Suddenly I was in sunlight. Crashing through tall grass as I fought to stand, I came up against Danny and Mark; saw fear etched into their faces. And I smelled something new, more familiar than the horrible stench under the blackberry mountain: smoke.
“What happened?” I asked the two of them.
“I don’t know,” Mark yelled. Danny turned and ran. “We got to get to the swamp.” I saw Danny ahead, running along the ridge of stone that dropped down into the swamp. Mark and I followed. Still dazed, I said nothing more until we had climbed down to the edge of the swamp. There was a path that ran along the edge of the swamp, but it overgrew so quickly that it often was difficult to find. Danny made it down to the path and stopped. I thought he was staring up at Mark and me, but his eyes were fixed over our heads, watching.
“What did you do in there?” Mark hissed in my ear. “You just disappeared, and then we smelled the smoke.” He was staring at me hard, his eyes accusing.
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“Look up there!” Mark turned me and pointed up the stone slope we had just climbed down. A pillar of fire shot up through a cloud gray smoke. Fire, from the center of the blackberry mountain, spread through the bramble, hissing, crackling, devouring.
Bits and pieces of branches and thick vines, all still glowing hot or burning with yellow flame, came floating down into the swamp. Some landed in the stunted trees that grew out of the mud, while others landed hissing in the dwindling pools of water. Summer had taken the moisture out of everything that grew, and small fires began to grow all around us.
“We got to get to the road,” I said.
“No way,” Danny said, turning his tear stained face to me. “I ain’t going back up there.”
“Not that road,” Mark said. “We got to get to Thompson Creek road, get around this and call the fire department.” He grabbed Danny by one arm and pulled him to the left.
I looked back up the stone slope at the growing tower of flame and smoke. The plume boiling from the burning vegetation had lifted into the sky, bending in the direction of town. “You think the fire department doesn’t already know about this?” I asked, incredulous.
Wind began to blow above us, pushing the smoke down into the bowl of the swamp. More hot brands fell, along with ash and choking smoke. We moved away from the stone slope and into the swamp, jumping from one island of tussock grass to the next, occasionally stepping into mud.
Danny stumbled and fell forward. Mark and I stopped, waited for him to get up, but he stayed there on his hands and knees.
“Listen,” I said to Danny, leaning down to talk to him. “Listen, we got to get out of here before the fire gets ahead of us.” Mark came over and grabbed one of Danny’s shoulders and I grabbed the other. Together we heaved Danny up. His eyes were red and his nose was running. He was crying.
The sound of the fire began to build as we came up to its leading edge. The Dragon’s Backbone was sloping down to nearly the level of the swamp, and I knew that we would have to make our way back to it to get to the road.
“It’s getting into the big trees,” Mark yelled.
We ran toward the ridge above the swamp. The fire had not reached that far and I felt that we had a good chance of making it to safety. Danny jumped the stones and fell forward onto the path. We could not see because of the smoke, but we all knew that this was the path we needed. From this point it went on straight through the woods and down to the built-up bed of Thompson Creek road.
If we can make it to the creek," I yelled, "we'll be safe." But my voice was lost in the thickening smoke and the roar of the flame. I pulled them together and we began to run.
All around us pieces of the trees, thrown up into the air by the intense heat of the fire, fell back to earth, burning. One hit Danny on the shoulder and showered his face with glittering sparks. "We're almost there," I yelled as he brushed the sparks from his hair. "Can you make it? Can you get there?"
Danny was too out of breath and choking on the thickening smoke to answer. Mark just nodded his head. On we ran. The ground began to rise, and I knew that we were coming up to the road. Suddenly it was there, coming at us from the shadow of the smoke above. We fell against the pile of stone that elevated the roadbed.
"Should we make a try for the creek?" Mark asked.
"You think it’s going to help?" Danny looked over at me, a questioning look in his eyes. There was not so much terror in them as before. "The fires going to jump the road and get right into the trees and brush by the creek. Best we can hope for would be to be boiled in the creek."
"Well, what would you suggest?"
"Let's rest up for just a second and then make a run for it up the road." He stared off toward the fire for a moment, added, "We got a little time." Danny slumped back against the rocks, closing his eyes. It was as if he had given up, and was simply awaiting his horrible fate.
"If we're going to do it," Mark said, and I could hear the panic edging into his voice. "We better do it now!"
I turned to answer, but my voice was captured before it could utter a sound. In the flash of a second, I understood the reason for Mark's mounting panic. I wiped his eyes and looked up and down the road.
"Oh man!" Danny said, his voice tired, resigned.
The fire had flanked us and jumped the road. Fire burned in the grass and brush that lined the bank of Thompson's Creek. Through the churning veil of smoke I saw the dancing orange and yellow flames. The fire was spreading in both directions along the road, cutting us off from escape.
I sat down on the rocks and felt every terrible emotion I had ever known; fear, despair, hatred, fury, terror and helplessness. I wanted to curl up and let the flames do what they would.
Suddenly there came from above a shower of water. It was as if the churning smoke had gathered in the air and let loose a monsoon. I looked up as fat drops of water struck my face. I had to wipe the water away with one hand to keep it from filling my eyes.
Steam billowed across the field and rolled, like a tide, up the embankment and over the road. The greasy smoke from the fire was swept away by the cottony white surge.
I looked up over the edge of the roadbed into a white wall of steam. The firefighters were as surprised to see the three of us standing there as we were of seeing the firefighters.
"Are you three alright?" one of the firefighters asked.
I looked out across the blacktop, ignoring the question. To the east, up the road, I saw the huge green fire engine. From its side ran yellow hose, twisting as firefighters held the nozzles at the hoses end, directing water into flames and heavy smoke. The roadway glistened wet in the summer sun, and to either side of the road a heavy blanket of steam still covered the burnt land.
"Fine...I'm...we are fine," Danny stammered.
The firefighter looked closely at Danny, then back to Mark and me. "Take them back to the engine, and tell Jonesy to check them out. But keep an eye on them," he said. "I want to talk to them when we're done."
I looked down, saw that I was covered with smeared ashes and soot. I could taste the smoke in my mouth, feel it burning in my eyes. I turned back toward the field and the swamp. The wind pushed through the steam that lay over it and blew it away. The run of grass was gone, replaced by blackened soil and charred tufts of stubble. Beyond that, the trees, now reduced to dark pointed towers, stood in silent sentinel formation, smoldering still from the intense heat that had killed them. Blue smoke rose from the splits and cracks caused by the swift drying of the wood by the fire.
Even further beyond that, beside the smoldering ruins of the prune dryer, sat another fire engine. Firefighters were wandering around in the dryer’s skeletal ruins, spraying their hoses all around; digging with shovels.
A knot of sickness grew in the pit of my stomach, and I thought, for a moment, that I would be ill. One of the firefighters walked the three of us to the engine and sat us down on a step next to the pump panel. Danny leaned over and put his head down between his knees. He looked up when I sat down beside him. We both stared out at the sterile landscape and could think of nothing to say. In the distance we watched as teams of firefighters moved over the burned ground spraying water, digging at the twisted ruins of brush and trees. When they reached the place where once the blackberry mountain stood, now a flat space of thick gray ash, one firefighter began moving the ash aside as if uncovering something. Even at the distance we were, I could hear the scrape of the metal shovel blade against concrete.
Suddenly we were aware of Jonesy again. From the radio in his pocket we heard one of the firefighters announce they had found something in the ground. “Don’t know what it is.” Jonesy turned from the pump panel on his fire engine, smiled at us. “You know that pile has been there since I was a kid,” he said. “It was older than this town, I think.” There was more talk over the radio that he listened to, but I could not hear.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Jonesy said. “Just an old cistern full of muddy water.”
We were twelve years old then, the three of us: Mark, Danny and me. But we were never as close as we were that day, running for our lives through the smoke. I looked at Danny and Mark as we sat on that fire engine and wondered what they had experienced under the blackberry mountain. Were they aware that something had escaped from that cistern, something that had saved my life, but had given me a warning?
“You are not safe. You must go, now!” Was it a warning to get out from under the blackberry mountain, or leave town?
This thought haunted me as I stood over Danny’s casket at his funeral. He had fallen in love before Mark or I knew what love really was, and had died in the arms of his love.
Mark turned inward and dark after that day under the blackberry mountain. He was with me carrying Danny’s casket to the gravesite, and stoically shook my hand as he departed Hillcrest as a Marine in search of war. He has never returned to Hillcrest, though I hear from him occasionally. He is living in a commune on the Oregon coast. I think he is still seeking war.
They both got out. I am still here.
I tried to leave Hillcrest. I attended college for four years, but returned; there was nothing else I could do.
The field has never recovered from the fire; it is a scar running down the eastern face of Hillcrest; a place that even twelve-year-olds will not go on a dare.
I teach History at Hillcrest High School. At night I sit in my classroom, usually grading papers or updating my lesson plans, but often just staring out the windows at my little town of Hillcrest as it flows down Spotted Deer mountain, following Thompson creek on its way to the Columbia river.
On my desk is a small triangle of wood with a quote etched into it. It says this to anyone walking up to my desk: “It Is Not The Future That Should Concern Us, But The Past.”
It is the past that scares the hell out of me.