Willow Hill

by Jason Wyckoff

 

November 10, 1914

Dear Mr. Cole,

Please find below my responses to your questions about the vanishing of Evan Pendleton in 1905 and his mother Maggie Pendleton’s subsequent “accident” in 1909. For your convenience, I have enumerated my remarks and also enclosed your original letter so that you may match the responses to your queries.

As you know, I have long held what most consider outlandish beliefs about the events in question. Since your questions to me were posed without the irony or indeed the tone of outright mockery that usually colors expressions of interest in my recollection of these matters, I trust that, in your forthcoming study of the region’s mining communities, my perspective will be fairly represented. I have included in my responses as much background on the characteristics of Shadows as is necessary to comprehend my view of events.

Regards,
Augustus Turnbull

1. I knew Maggie Pendleton as a neighbor and fellow church-goer, as well as a teacher at the school Evan attended—the town’s only school, in fact. He was a quiet but inquisitive boy, and for a child in a mining town, who was often left to his own devices, exceptionally well-behaved for his age. As for Maggie, I cannot stress enough that I believe her to have been of sound mind. Most of those people close to her, after hearing her own account of her son’s vanishing, concluded that the incident had so traumatized the girl that her grip on reality had come loose. It is little wonder that she almost stopped talking about it altogether. But even through her grief she always spoke lucidly about what had happened that day, on those rare occasions when she spoke of it at all. Furthermore, the precision with which she planned and acted four years later suggests that her mind was as sharp then as it had ever been, and that is quite sharp indeed.

2. As you come down the west side of Willow Hill, starting from the ancient tree that gives the place its name, you find the old mine entrance about a quarter mile above the spot where the land levels off. Beyond that point, you have a meadow maybe a hundred yards across, and past that, the road. Follow it south, you come quickly to the town’s outskirts and, before long, its named streets; travel it north, and in a few miles or so you find yourself on a forest road used mainly by loggers and trappers, since it eventually becomes a simple dirt path and connects to no other thoroughfare beyond the wood’s edge. The road itself is lightly wooded on the western side, with a border of blackberry bushes running along its edge.

3. The two of them were as close as any parent and child I have ever known, and after Evan’s father died the boy grew all the more attached to Maggie. A sad tale in itself, Pete’s passing. He was one of the hewers killed in the 1898 cave-in, before Evan had even learned to walk. Maggie loved him deeply, and he was devoted to her. They didn’t have much, but they did have each other, and, for a year at least, they both had Evan. Would that all our hearts were filled with as much love as Pete’s and Maggie’s were for their poor, doomed family. You should have seen them all together on a Sunday, for Pete so cherished the time they were able to spend at leisure after church services. Coarse he may have been, and old before his time he certainly was, but let there be no doubt that he was a gentle and caring father, and a loving husband.

4. Maggie was deeply affected by Evan’s vanishing, and in that respect she wasn’t at all unusual among those who’ve had a loved one taken. Nor was she unusual in wanting to exact vengeance. Very few children are devoured by Shadows, but the kin of those few invariably carry the pain with them for the rest of their lives, all the more surely if they happened to witness the event themselves. What made Maggie unusual was the fact that she did actually develop a scheme to destroy the Shadow that consumed her son. Most people in her position would view the situation as hopeless. But even that didn’t make her unique; some do channel their grief and rage into plans of retaliation. What made Maggie exceptional was that her plan was a good one.

5. Firstly, you must understand that it’s nearly impossible to catch a Shadow off-guard. If one decides it isn’t interested in you, it will hide, and Shadows are fast, patient, and hard to find. If one of them does take an interest in you, those same qualities make it very difficult to resist. Some people draw on religious faith and invoke the names of their gods to confront them, but that won’t impede a determined Shadow. Many who are pursued simply run, but if a Shadow wants to find you, it will. Savvier people do not try to outrun Shadows; instead, knowing that Shadows are dark creatures, these folks will, if possible, attempt to counter them with light from every direction, and indeed this has become the preferred method of combating Shadows. That tactic can keep a Shadow at bay, though usually only temporarily. Maggie understood that their weakness was not in their dark nature, but in their dependence on what is extrinsic to them. Shadows need light; in fact they feed on it, and so she came up with the novel idea of trapping the Shadow and then starving it with darkness.

6. I have considered the question of the corporeality of Shadows at great length over the years, without ever having come to a firm conclusion. They can do harm to earthly beings such as ourselves, which strongly suggests that they are embodied. Maggie’s story seems to support that view, though it does not prove it conclusively.

7. As to why more people are not taken by Shadows, only the Shadows themselves could know for certain. But the prevailing view is that although they are creatures of darkness, they are not inherently creatures of malevolence. I daresay that most, if not all of us, have found ourselves in the presence of a Shadow on at least one occasion, though an overwhelming majority of folk would not recognize the situation for what it was.

8. Maggie would never admit to having been off the road and into the wood with her young son, and always told the story so as to give the impression that the Shadow had reached out of the thick tangle of trees and bushes to take the boy. No one ever pressed her on that point, but it is difficult for me to accept the implication that a Shadow had ventured into open space at dusk to reach its victim. And I cannot stress enough the fact that the mine’s entrance is nowhere near the road.

9. According to Maggie, the two of them had almost no warning. Since Shadows move silently, their only inkling of trouble was the sensation of what Maggie called a presence in the moments before an unnatural dimness overtook them. By her account, that was when their eyes met and she opened her mouth to tell him to run—but her lips had barely pursed to voice the word when the place where Evan stood went completely empty. It’s not just that he disappeared, you understand, it’s that for a period of perhaps two or three seconds at most, there was simply a void where he had stood. No light, no trees, no leaves on the ground, no Evan. And then it was over, and everything looked just as it had before, except that Evan was gone. According to Maggie, he had never made a sound.

10. These other theories about Evan’s disappearance are unconvincing. As to whether Maggie herself was responsible, no one who saw firsthand the woman’s shock and grief over the loss of her only son could possibly believe that she was the guilty party. The local authorities concluded as much, and this as well as most other hypotheses are inadequate to account for the fact that no trace whatsoever of Evan’s body was ever found.

11. Once a Shadow has done any serious mischief it usually makes itself scarce, but—and this is important to bear in mind—it doesn’t usually travel far. To answer your question, it seems that they are territorial. Or at the very least, they do not like to venture a long way from what they consider their home. Even still, it’s noteworthy that the Shadow that took Evan not only lingered, but readily made its presence known. Had it not, things would have gone very differently.

12. It’s clear enough to me that Maggie was hounded by a Shadow, but as to how anyone could know it was the same one that took Evan, that is a fair and difficult question. How can one tell darkness from darkness? The only answer I can give, unsatisfying as it may be, is that we must trust those who tell their own tales, and when Maggie told hers—infrequent as those retellings were, as time went on—she swore on Evan’s precious soul that she knew and would never forget this Shadow. She knew it in the same way that you might know who has entered a room just by the sound of their footsteps, she said.

13. There are only so many places that are, or can be, consumed by total darkness. Even an abandoned and shuttered cabin, lying still in the cold quiet of a winter night, will admit the light of the stars and moon through the minute cracks and gaps in its boards. It may well be that you or I would sense nothing but an empty darkness, but a Shadow will survive on even those meager celestial offerings. Indeed, a Shadow inhabiting such a place, having to live on the shards of light that break through cracks too small to see, would be a furious, unimaginably fearsome thing.

Beyond that, I suspect that Maggie had no love of the mine after Pete’s death, and would have had no qualms about destroying it.

14. I cannot say with any certainty how Maggie acquired the explosives, and speculation on the matter would be unfruitful. Being a putter herself after Pete’s passing, when necessity drove her to the mine she so hated and resented, it likely would not have been altogether difficult to find and take what she needed.

15. The Shadow had to be baited into entering the mine, and Maggie could offer no lure but her own self. That’s both the elegance and the ugliness of her plot.

16. There were no visible or audible signs of activity beneath the surface after the collapse. Maggie must surely have been inside the shaft when the uppermost portion of the tunnel caved in, but even after all the inquiries, when efforts were undertaken six months later to reopen the mine under new ownership—a process which took some weeks of difficult labor—no sign of her could be found. And that is what so puzzled the authorities, for some trace of the girl should have remained. Ever the hard-nosed realists, they still saw fit to conclude that Maggie had been killed in the explosion, and declared the matter closed.

17. This is the most vexing question of all, and anyone with the knowledge sufficient to answer it is in no position to enlighten the rest of us. Indeed, it only invites further questions. If the Shadow could be trapped in the mine, then how could there be no trace of it once the shaft had been cleared? If Maggie was killed, either by the creature or the cave-in, then why were her remains never found? If, on the other hand, the Shadow had transported Maggie, and Evan before her, to some other place than this world, then how could the thing possibly have been trapped in a mine at all?

In my view, the question looming behind all these others is this: Can a thing be both part of this world as well as something beyond it? It is a description one would apply to God, but to a Shadow? My mind balks, but my heart speaks blasphemy. My heart. Were it the other way round, I could sleep more easily.

The mine did reopen, as you know. I have visited the place myself, but being a schoolteacher and not a miner, I have never set foot in the mine before or after the events in question. I have heard nothing from the town’s miners that sheds any further light on the matter of the Pendletons. The consensus is that it is, at the end of the day, a sad story of a miner’s wife who, consumed by grief at the loss of her beloved as well as her only child, employed the instrument of her husband’s demise to end her own earthly suffering.

Perhaps it is, but again, my heart says otherwise.

 

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