I was out in the woods behind my house today and I came to a realization. I realized that I have a story to tell. In fact I’ve held this particular story for some time, almost thirty years now. However, I did not know that I had a tale to share until very recently. I had always assumed that this memory must have been a nightmare that I had as a child, and remembered it as a real waking experience as often happens in childhood. We do not fully learn to distinguish between the internal and external experiences until a certain age.
I was six.
I was camping with my parents in the Finger Lakes if I remember correctly. We had arrived later than expected but with enough time to setup camp and get a nice warm dinner fire going well before sundown. It was a special time. My father had just arranged a rather large business deal and he and my mother never seemed so happy or in love. Their cheer spread and I remember sitting by that fire with the internal warmth of one’s most meaningful memories.
After dinner I was told that we had an hour before sundown and that I was allowed to roam freely as long as I could still see our tent. This was my invisible curtain, and I was a master at pushing the boundaries. The limitation was instantly transformed into a challenge in my mind. I walked and walked, weaving through the woods around the camp, but always keeping the most slight, distant sliver of the tent in my vision. I was finally as far as I could go. I pushed my back against a thick pine and peeked around it ever so slightly, satisfied that I was as remote and hidden as possible from my parents without breaking their rule. That’s when I first heard that voice.
“Hey. Hey you.” in a hushed throaty shout.
I turned toward the direction that the voice came to find nothing. I spun a full three hundred and sixty degrees two times trying to pick up sight of the owner of that voice to no avail. I peered up into the trees, not knowing what reason there would be for a man to sit up there, but still searching.
“Down here, boy.” with slight urgency.
I looked down at the ground in that direction and saw him, the man in the earth. In front of me was a hole in the rich black soil, about the diameter of two adult fists. In this hole was was the face of a man looking directly up at me. His skin was charcoal, complete with minuscule cracks in his skin and a strange light behind them. His eyes were a odd sickly grey color, as if someone had plucked them from his head and let them soak in black tea. He was bald, and his white teeth stood out like my socks would under a black light.
“Hello!” It said up to me, with a great welcoming smile.
“Um. Hello” I believe was my response, nervous but polite.
“I’m happy you came. I need your help. Would you like to be able to help me?” brows raised.
“Sure.” I was clearly noncommittal.
The entire scene was so unreal it caused some shift in my forming mind. This was like nothing that had ever happened, but the proper responses in this scenario were obvious. They say hello and you return the greeting. Would I like to help? Sure I would like to help.
“I am burning under the sun. Would you pile some sticks and give me some shade?”
Realizing that maybe his face being so dark was a product of this very issue I hurried to begin piling sticks and small branches, eventually blocking the low setting sun from the man’s face. His eyes followed me as I moved around the area to collect material, and his mouth hung open in an excited expression. I was very careful to not get too close to his face, feeling a bit uneasy. At no point did the face do anything that alarmed me, and once I was finished I felt a bit more settled.
“Ah, much better!” The face exclaimed. A few inches to the right of the hole that held this man’s head I saw the earth start to move. Soon pebbles were tumbling from the top of a small but growing hill. Then small earthworm colored protuberances began to pop out from the mound. Soon a full sized, dirty hand was above the ground, and it was holding something small.
“This is to thank you for helping me.”
I looked closer without getting too much closer to either his face or hand. The hand was holding a shark’s tooth. Two weeks previous to this trip I had lost this item from a necklace that I had purchased with my own money at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. I was sad and had a sinking feeling in my stomach every time I recounted the loss. Here it was in front of me. My eyes lit up, and my mouth dropped as I lost all sense of fear and gently took the item from the hand.
“It’s mine! Thank you!” I said ecstatically. I noticed the particular shape of the tooth edge as exactly matching the one I had had.
“You’re very welcome young man. You are very kind. I wonder if you would be so kind as to do one more thing for me?”
“Would you get me a cup of water from that creek to your left?”
I agreed, and quickly located a large leaf which I cupped and used to carry a bit of water to the man. I was nearly back when I began to imagine having to feed the face in the ground. The idea of putting my hands so close to his mouth started making me feel uncomfortable about the situation again.
“Aim it. Close your eyes and I will open my mouth wide. Pour it with your eyes closed and then step back, opening them.”
I was relieved that I did not need to get too close. I did as he asked, moving closer, but not too close. Closing my eyes in this situation made me very anxious but I did as asked, and then slowly poured the water. When I opened my eyes I saw, for a split second, blackness in the hole. Then the face snapped back into place instantly and the man smiled again with big wide eyes and thanked me.
There was an uncomfortable silence which I decided to break.
“Can I help you out of that hole?” I inquired, feeling generous and helpful.
“Oh!” the face became overwhelmed with joy. “Would you? I only need one thing.”
“Ok” I prompted.
“Just go get your mother and being her here. She can help me.”
“Oh.” I was slightly disappointing that it seemed like I could not help and needed a parent to do the job.
“Yes, it’s very easy, just tell her that you found something amazing. Don’t tell her what it is. Perhaps you could tell her that it’s the most beautiful crystal you’ve ever seen and you need her help to get it.”
The suggestion seemed like a good way to get my mother to come here. I realized that telling her the truth would simply not work, that she would probably not believe me.
“Go now! before it get’s dark. If you’re mother comes I will be able to get out. Help me, and I have another wonderful present for you!”
“Ok.” I replied hesitantly.
I turned and headed back to that sliver of orange between the trees. As I walked, it became bigger, more real, more like the real world. The face behind me started to feel less real, like it was a dream I was walking away from back into regular life. Step by step, my mind pushed the experience aside, as “other”, as something I should stop thinking about.
By the time I reached the tent, I had decided that I should not lie to the smiling face of my mother. I decided that nothing would happen if I simply stopped helping him now. I decided to stop thinking about the man in the earth completely, although the memory of this incident has stayed with me throughout my life.
Later in life I never told anyone of this, never shared it. I had in fact decided that it was some kind of false memory, a dream, the product of a fever, or a hallucination from banging my head in the woods. Logic took over and my mind and fit this into the most realistic category possible and segregated it from “the real world”.
That is, until tonight, almost thirty years later after I cut a small poison ivy bush from the woods behind me home. Until my seven year old son Jacob ran up to me and asked:
“Dad! Can you come help me. I found an awesome huge crystal in the back yard! Help me pull it out!”
I lead him back into the house immediately, and drew the truth from him amidst his tears and apologies for lying. I have never let him stray from my side in the woods since that day, and never will.