The wind howled through the window frames and rattled the panes in Jimmy’s bedroom. Nights such as this were perfect for sharing tales of terror. And my cousins, Robbie and Jimmy, enjoyed telling them as much as I enjoyed hearing them.
This was just one of numerous weekend visits I’d had with them throughout my childhood and adolescence. My mom and I often made the drive upstate from our home on Long Island so she could visit her sister—my Aunt Eileen. And I spent that time hanging out with Robbie and Jimmy.
Tonight, as we warmed up after some postprandial wandering through the late-autumn woods, Robbie recalled a bit of local folklore and related a tale I would never forget. Jimmy lit some candles and turned out the light.
“Once there was a guy who lived up on Little Mountain,” Robbie began. “He lived in a cabin with his wife and son. Every day, he would go out and hunt while his wife stayed home and cooked and cleaned. One day, while he was out hunting, injuns attacked his family.”
“You had Indians around here?” I asked naïvely. Both agreed that Indians had once been prolific throughout the Catskill Mountains—especially in their hometown. “Especially here in West Shokan,” Jimmy said. Although I’d never given any thought to the etymology, upon hearing the word spoken aloud again—Shokan—it suddenly dawned on me that there was a decided similarity between it and the many towns and villages on Long Island with place names of unmistakable American Indian origin—names such as Nissequogue, Shinnecock Hills, and Montauk. And I felt like a dope for displaying my ignorance—for momentarily thinking Indians lived only “out West”. And, duh … I also now recalled the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving with the Indians in New England.
Robbie went on to explain how about a dozen of the bloodthirsty savages broke into the cabin one day to steal a bunch of stuff. But, dissatisfied with the few things they’d plundered, they became angry and set fire to the cabin.
“What did they ever do to the Indians?” I asked.
“Nothin’,” Jimmy said. “They were just those kind of injuns,” he explained in his characteristically colorless speech.
Robbie proceeded with his narrative. “The man came home in time to see smoke coming from his cabin and the injuns running off into the woods. He ran inside to save his family, but when he got in there he found his wife and son murdered. Blood was everywhere, and his wife’s scalp was stuck in the wall with a tomahawk.”
Now he really had my attention.
“The cabin was a huge heap of flames now, and the doorway was blocked by the fire. His only chance now was to escape through the window.”
“But it was stuck,” Jimmy interrupted.
“Yeah,” Robbie continued, “and so he had to crash through it.”
“Why didn’t he use a chair to smash it?” I asked. But I could see by his expression that my logic had confused—and irritated—him. “Sorry … go ’head.”
Robbie then explained how the wooden grilles holding the six square panes together created a fiery, blazing grid. “See?” he asked, pointing to the window behind him. (Apparently, this homesteading family had purchased their windows at Home Depot.) “He jumped through the window, and as he did, the flaming wood burned an H into his chest!”
“Yeah,” Jimmy chimed in.
“Wasn’t he wearing a shirt?” I asked.
Not prepared for a pop quiz, both agreed he must not have been. “Otherwise, he wouldn’a been burned,” Jimmy said, employing his own logic now.
I accepted this and nodded in agreement.
But now I was about to learn the really scary part. It seems the death of his wife and son—and the trauma of having discovered them himself—had driven him insane. From that moment on, his sole purpose in life—and endless quest—had become revenge. And not just against the Indians who’d wronged him and destroyed his happiness—but against everyone!
“And he’s still around,” Jimmy whispered, looking toward the window.
“He’s still around?” I asked in disbelief.
I had to get my bearings. “Wait a minute … didn’t this happen … like, a hundred years ago?”
“Nuh uh,” Jimmy expounded.
Then Robbie added, “And people sometimes still spot him running through the woods.” (A local Sasquatch.)
“And he hunts down anyone who refuses to believe in him,” Jimmy warned.
“Or curses him,” Robbie added.
Now, up to this point, the story had seemed to be sorta, kinda within the realm of possibility … but now this? Irreverence against this crazy mountain man was his justification to just go around killing innocent people? I’d begun to doubt the legend’s authenticity about halfway through, but now …
I was only twelve at the time—and perhaps, owing to a youthful ingenuousness, I could easily be led to believe a somewhat credible, somewhat plausible story—especially when told convincingly. At night. By candlelight. And Robbie and Jimmy were extremely convincing in their presentation of this sordid tale. (And, yes … I wanted to believe it.)
But I wasn’t prepared yet to admit that I believed it; I had my pride, after all. “I don’t believe this happened,” I boldly announced.
“You’d better,” Robbie warned, “or he’ll come after you.” Jimmy nodded in agreement, urgency in his expression.
I studied each one’s demeanor. They’d lied to me plenty of times in the past, so I’d had a lot of practice recognizing their deception. None of the telltale signs were there, but still, I was hesitant to make a commitment, so I pressed them. Again I brought out my best weapon—logic.
“How does he know who’s cursing him?”
“He just does,” Robbie replied. (The Santa Claus dictum.)
“Ya never know when he’s in the woods listenin’ to ya,” Jimmy added for emphasis.
I considered this for a moment and thought, yeah … someone hiding in the undergrowth where we traipsed almost every day would easily be able to overhear our conversations.
“What does he look like?” I asked.
“He wears ripped clothes,” Jimmy said.
“And he runs around barefoot,” Robbie added. “He’s really skinny, and he’s got a beard that comes down to his chest.”
This was unbelievable. A murderous, clairvoyant Robinson Crusoe was on the loose somewhere out there? How many times, I wondered, had we passed right by this maniacal mountain man during our countless afternoon treks into the woods—or worse—along the black, moonless roads at night? How many times—during our innocent stone-skipping expeditions along the streams—had I narrowly escaped a gruesome death at the hands of this madman—simply because I had been discussing my seventh-grade teacher instead of my non-belief in him?
But then it occurred to me … I wasn’t in any danger. I couldn’t have been a nonbeliever … and I couldn’t have cursed him … if I’d never even heard of him until just now. This satisfied me as a valid rationale for why he’d never killed me. And Robbie and Jimmy did believe in him, so that explained why he’d never killed them either.
I thought about my mom and Aunt Eileen—settled comfortably on the couch downstairs, blissfully watching Lawrence Welk—completely oblivious to the fact that H-Man could have, on so many occasions, crashed through the window and inflicted his vengeful brand of justice upon them—had they known of his existence, but not believed. They were safe in their ignorance. But now I had been inducted into the small community of locals who knew of the man—the legend—the consequences.
It was winter break, and I was looking forward to a full week upstate—a full week away from school. Of course, I hadn’t forgotten about the tale Robbie and Jimmy had related during my previous visit—and as the days passed, I continued to test their conviction regarding H-Man by making light of the story. They continually warned me not to speak ill of the man, but I had to put this to rest. I had to know—once and for all—if they were serious. I even went so far one day, while hiking behind Little Mountain, as to dare H-Man to come out of the woods and get me. “Here I am, mountain man!” I yelled. “Come ’n’ get me!”
And so they set the wheels in motion to teach me that insolent behavior against H-Man would not go unpunished. The next night, the three of us were hanging out in Jimmy’s bedroom making jelly-jar candles. It was about 8:30.
Suddenly, Jimmy said, “Shhhh! Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” I asked.
“A noise outside.”
“I didn’t hear anything,” I said.
“Well I heard something.”
“I thought I heard something, too,” Robbie said, concern in his expression as he looked up from his candle making. “Sounded like branches breaking.”
I turned off the light so we could get a good look outside. We knelt down and huddled around the window, peering through the frost-laminated panes.
“See anything?” I asked.
“No,” Jimmy replied.
“Me neither,” Robbie said, “but let’s go outside and take a look around. There shouldn’t be anybody messin’ around in our yard this time o’ night.” His statement amused me—as if there were a reasonable time to be messing around in their yard.
“Wait,” I said. “Let’s open the window and listen first.” Jimmy cracked the window and a gust of sharp, icy air rushed in, the powdery snowflakes from the sill stinging our faces. It was like sticking your head into the supermarket freezer. The fragrance of dirty metal screen mingled with the clean snowy air and smoked-ham aroma coming from the neighborhood chimneys.
We couldn’t see or hear anything, so we decided to go out and take a look around. We were fearless, indomitable adventurers now, intent on keeping the homestead safe from intruders and marauders. The subject of H-Man hadn’t come up since the day before, and the thought that it might be him didn’t even occur to me; this was a generic adventure of the type we’d embarked upon many times before.
Robbie grabbed a flashlight. We put on our coats and boots and bumped downstairs. Our moms, little perceiving—much less appreciating—our heroism, gave us a passing glance as we headed out into the perilous unknown.
We trudged through the knee-deep snow around to the side of the house and toward the trees just outside Jimmy’s bedroom window. The squeaky crunch beneath our feet was loud in the stillness. Robbie shone the light, sweeping it methodically across the yard.
The pale moonlight cast an ethereal glow everywhere and gently illuminated the muted blue-white landscape. The tall, silhouetted firs and pines cast an overshadowing gloom upon the serene landscape. Nevertheless, the wood smoke and frigid air invigorated me, and I suddenly wished we were out camping.
We took a few steps closer to the spot directly beneath Jimmy’s window. Despite the tranquility, a momentary spell of anxiety—induced by the uncertainty of what we might discover—convulsed my upper body and arm muscles. I was grateful that, to my cousins, it appeared to be merely a chill from the intense cold.
But at times like this, I imagined any number of scary woodland creatures darting at me from within the shadows—taking hold of me—and shredding me to pieces with their disgusting yellow fangs. (Maybe I really was the “city slicker” my cousins teasingly—and often mockingly—accused me of being.) But I never allowed this latent fear to deter me from the adventures that moments like this afforded. In fact, I welcomed the disquieting effect that arose whenever the three of us confronted unknown “danger”.
A bit apprehensive and shivering (now from the cold), I stood as still as I could—seeking the source of Jimmy’s noise. I listened intently, hands in my pockets, shoulders hunched. The cold turned our exhalations into vanishing vapors.
“See anything?” Jimmy whispered, hunched over and breathing into his cupped hands.
No one spoke. Robbie continued to scan the area with the flashlight. He led us toward the tool shed. Suddenly, he stopped, and aiming the light down, revealed—to our astonishment—four pine sticks, each about a foot long—laid out on the snow in the form of an … E.
Ε for Eric!
There were footprints—made by bare feet!—in the otherwise-unbroken snow leading from the scene over to the road.
Robbie’s jaw dropped and his expression turned tragic. Wide-eyed, he looked at me. “He knows about you,” he said, solemn, resigned terror in his quavering voice. “H-Man knows about you, and he’s after you.”
His proclamation sent an unpleasant jolt through me, and my leg muscles began to sag. And now, my disbelief in H-Man was also beginning to collapse under this new—and palpable—development.
In an instant I considered all that had happened during the past few days—and the week before. I grasped for a logical, reasonable explanation. But I was scared and confused; I couldn’t think straight.
“Thi … this is his warning!” Jimmy stuttered. Jimmy never stuttered.
This couldn’t be a setup, I reasoned. I’d been with Robbie and Jimmy all day and night. They hadn’t been out of my sight. How … who could have made barefoot prints in the freshly fallen snow?
“I know you guys did this,” I chuckled unconvincingly as I turned back toward the house. I just wanted to get back upstairs. Both adamantly denied having had anything to do with it, and we went in to bed.
We spent the next day sledding, along with about a dozen of the neighborhood kids, on an obliging neighbor’s steep, expansive front lawn. My cousins were considerate enough to avoid any mention of the previous evening’s incident. And of course, I didn’t bring it up. We stopped playing long enough to wolf down a dinner of canned ham, instant mashed potatoes, frozen corn, and Pillsbury biscuits before heading back over to the hill.
It was well past dark when we stopped for the day. Exhausted and cold, we trudged into the house and wrenched off our boots in front of the fireplace. My cousins went upstairs while I stayed behind to toast my toes for a few minutes before bed.
When I eventually dragged myself upstairs and into Jimmy’s room, my cousins were standing by the window, which, they swore had not been left open when we’d gone out that morning. But it was open now. And the terror and shock in their eyes could have been a reflection of my own.
Beneath the sill, scribbled in crayon, was the letter E.
I was terror-stricken. Not only was I now convinced of H-Man’s existence, but I was faced with the realization that I wasn’t even safe in my cousins’ house! He’d gotten in!
I gasped, but no words came out. I turned and raced down the stairs. I huddled in a chair in the living room and started to hyperventilate. I sat, hugging my knees, wondering if this could really be happening to me; I couldn’t sort out my emotions. I got dizzy from hyperventilating.
And that was the precise moment Robbie and Jimmy thumped and crashed down the stairs in a fit of laughter. They came into the living room, clutching their stomachs—and I realized I’d played right into their hands. I’d been the complete fool.
And I despised—and admired—them for it.