In my dream, at the end of a winding path, mostly downhill and strewn with loose rocks, was a pond. Both the path leading down to it and the pond itself were surrounded by trees, maples and oaks and the occasional pine, spaced far enough apart that you could see the trees behind them until they began to blend together, fading into a woven tapestry of trunks and branches. The pond itself was not a cheerful pond. It was not full of ducks, nor did it reflect the blue sky and clouds above. It was not surrounded by cattails and rushes blown by a gentle wind. It was black with decay and reflected no light; an inkwell in the deep part of the woods. The trees, with dark twisted trunks, grew right up to the edge, roots rolling over the banks and into the black water. It was an almost perfect circle, the land rising sharply up on the far side, heavy blankets of dead leaves lining the lower edges, mossy rocks capping the rim.
Forests are rarely flat expanses with only trees to interrupt your line of sight. Trees require water, and water comes from deep within the ground,usually from some unseen spring that feeds the streams and creeks, breaking up the landscape and creating hollows and hidden places not obvious to the casual observer. Rolling hills can often create the illusion that one is almost free of the woods and about to enter an open field when ascending a hill, only to descend once again into the endless trees. And in the low places, when the streams become clogged with decades of leaf fall and dead branches, the water rises with the Spring rains and doesn’t fall again until the August droughts. Sometimes ferns grow around the edges here, but mostly it becomes a swampy place colored by the decaying matter at the bottom that has blackened with time. Some places are deeper than others.
The dark pond in the woods of my dream was its own entity; regardless of what inhabited its unseen depths. In John Irving’s book, A Widow for One Year, he included a short story, “The Door in the Floor”. This story was about a little boy and his mother who lived in a cabin, on an island, that had a door in the floor that must never be opened. We were never told what was behind the door, only that it must be something quite terrible. This pond, sometimes a hidden pool, sometimes a vast quarry with deep stone walls, was always that. Always something more than just a dark spot on a map.
Behind my house growing up was a short stretch of woods through which ran a narrow path to a large field. As you emerged from that short section of woods, thick with pine trees choking with green brier, you came to a large chicken coop and run. Beyond that, was a field that was often overgrown with weeds, pine saplings, and brambles, but at times was cleared to grow strawberries, corn, or other vegetables. The path made a sharp left at the chicken coop and then curved back around past a row of unkempt blueberry bushes standing sentry along the southern edge of the field before it plunged back into dark forest. In the early summer, these bushes were heavy with fruit which would sometimes end up in a pie or some blueberry muffins smothered in butter and powdered sugar if we were willing to spend a few hours picking them.
Reaching the treeline, you would pass through some spindly pines, soon replaced by taller oaks and maples blocking most of the sun, leaving you in shade. It was a dark forest without much growth below the trees other than ferns and the occasional lady’s slipper, a small pink orchid that grew close to the ground. Eventually the path would take you down to a stream that wound its way to the salt marshes a mile or two down the way.
My best friend and I spent hours every day during the summer and after school in those woods and in that stream. We found all the hidden hollows where the water dropped several feet below the forest floor in gullies, where the clay had been washed away and small pools gathered along its length. These pools were often full of leopard frogs that we tried to capture in day long ventures that required packing a lunch and sneaking the aquarium fishnet into a backpack. These efforts were mostly in vain as the frogs were aware of us long before we spotted them where they were camouflaged along the mossy banks.
If you moved upstream from these pools, the water dropped deeper and deeper into the land as it wound towards its source. It eventually came to an abrupt halt in a deep ravine with a black leaf lined pool at the bottom. The walls were so steep at that point that if you ventured down, you were not likely to make it back up both because of the grade and because of the thick blanket of leaves that granted no purchase. Instead, you would have to get down into the black water and walk downstream until the walls were shallow enough to climb back out. It was never terribly deep, but since you couldn’t see the bottom, it was terribly unsettling.
My father liked to tell us a story about a witch he saw rising out of that dark pool when he was hunting one night. We knew it wasn’t true, he never hunted at night. It was meant to be a spooky story to make Halloween a little more exciting, but the idea of a dark spirit haunting that water in that deep part of the forest rang a bit too true. We never went into those woods after dark. We never even approached them at sunset when it was already night beyond the trees and we felt that there was something hungry in those trees that could see us. Smell us.
Some of this fear was natural. Childhood is full of anxiety that often manifests nightmares and monsters that no one else can see. On the dirt road where I grew up, there were only a few other kids and we all had our own stories about things we had seen in our houses or out our windows late at night. Most homes in those days didn’t have air conditioning and so many a summer night was spent with the windows open, listening to the cicadas shrieking and the demonic howls of the neighborhood cats. The night air was thick as velvet and oppressively hot despite the box fan blowing aggressively from the window. There were many nights I drifted in and out of sleep, unsettled by the heat and night sounds until the sun began to rise and I could finally relax into unconsciousness.
Southern Maryland, where I grew up, in general was a haunted place. In its almost 400 year history since Leonard Calvert first settled there, there was a lot of conflict and bloodshed. Colonizing new lands is seldom if ever a peaceful process. There were conflicts between the settlers. There was slavery. There were native tribes who simply disappeared. There were disease epidemics and harsh weather, both of which can lead certain people to believe there is a witch that needs to hang or driven from her home with fire on a frigid winter night.
Maryland was mostly pro-Union during the Civil War, but due to fears of secession, Southern Maryland was quickly occupied by Union troops. Point Lookout, at the southern end of the county where the Chesapeake Bay met the Potomac River, was a field hospital but also a POW camp for Confederate soldiers. During its time, close to four thousand men lost their lives there and are buried in a mass grave. I remember going for a walk in the woods with my father one morning after we had gotten several inches of snow. The sky was dark gray and it was dark enough that the trees did not cast any shadows. When we had gotten about a half mile down into the woods, away from the house, we saw two figures walking about 50 yards ahead of us. They would periodically disappear behind the trees as the path curved through the woods along the stream bed. We thought it might be our neighbor and his son, but we figured we might catch up with them eventually and did not want to disturb the stillness by calling out. It wasn’t until we reached the point we had last seen them when we realized that we were the only ones leaving footprints in the snow.
I still dream about dark water in the woods. Sometimes, it’s relatively benign, a fishing hole that no one knows about or a secret swimming hole. Sometimes the dark water is the stream and it is rising too swiftly to warn any of the children playing on the banks before they are swept away. Occasionally I see what lurks below the black water; a monstrous sharp-toothed frog, strange large-eyed fish who might be the souls of drowned children, shadows who leave the water when night falls. Many times the water itself is the monster, slowly seeping into places it doesn’t belong, making everything it invades unwholesome and dangerous.
While on a hike in a local park, my daughter, my niece, and I wandered deep into the woods in search of a stuffed pheasant. It was a sponsored park activity that no one else that day seemed to know about and so we took off into the woods by ourselves following the provided gps coordinates that would lead us to “Phil”. Google maps showed that he would be located next to a small pond and after about 40 minutes of climbing up and down ravines, over some fallen logs, and down into a hollow we found him next to one of these dark forest pools. But, I learned something new that day. In what I perceived as unwholesome darkness as a child, nature was at work providing one of those accidental and brief moments of transcendant beauty. You see, those rotting leaves under the water release their oils and tannins which form a delicate and quite fragile layer on the surface. And when the air and water have been still enough, the sunlight can reflect on this very thin layer and can turn a pool of black water into a pool of rainbow light.