Excuse me the voice had said from behind us. Do you mind if I follow you out?
We had made the drive out to Hawksbill Crag, a rock formation in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas early that morning.
There was a nervous energy in the country, one of a continuing divide. Great for ratings, no so much for society-at-large. Would the Big Oaf be given the boot by the voters, or would he continue his reckless reign?
It was still undecided, but we didn’t care too much. She had the day off, and I could take off as needed, so we loaded up our doggos, two blue heeler sisters, and headed out for day. Through windy state roads, the last six miles of which was a bumpy, jarring, washboard dirt road that made you question whether it was worth the drive.
Once there, though, it was a beautiful walk. That November day wasn’t too cold, or too hot.
The dogs loved the forest trail, stopping whenever they could to smell the flowers, roots, trees, shrubs, or just to investigate a sound of rustling in the layers upon layers of fallen leaves.
Hawksbill Crag was an overlook and recently had become a place where people loved to take their social media pics because of the rocky overhang. The stony formation jutted out like a bird’s head and body (thus its namesake) over the valley below. It made for fantastic travelogue photos, profile pics, and wedding announcements.
It was also the scene of several fatal accidents over the years, too. A girl from South Dakota or Massachusetts or something had gotten too close to the edge recently and had slipped and fallen a hundred feet to her death a few months back. It’s tragic but people just can’t help getting that perfect Instagram shot I guess.
We’ve been out here a few times, though, so we know what to expect, and when to keep a tighter hold of the dogs. And most of the folks we see, families with kids and older folks, are mindful of the edge and where the trail starts to get near some cliffs.
College kids, though…
But this time it was uneventful. You have to wait your turn if it’s really busy once you get to the end, as everyone wants to get a clear shot on the overhang, with no one in the background. My girl got a real nice one of me with the two heelers actually looking at the camera for a change, not staring off into the forest for a squirrel.
It’s never too crowded, though the parking at the trailhead’s dirt lot might make you believe otherwise. It’s such a long strung-out trail that groups don’t ever get bunched up, and most folks are good about letting faster walkers get by. And it’s so quiet and serene that you have plenty of notice of anybody coming up from behind.
So we were both a little startled when we heard the voice speak up from behind us.
I instinctlvely stepped in front of my wife, while holding my dogs’s leash back, in case she lunged. My dog couldn’t have cared less, though, looking up in the trees at the moment.
The woman, who was maybe sixty or seventy stood about ten feet away from us, hands clasped behind her. She was smiling in a perfectly pleasant sort of way, and there was nothing about her that should have distressed me.
I’m sorry, what was that? I asked, more to get my bearings than for clarification.
Follow you out she repeated My people wanted to stay a little longer, but I’m ready to head out now.
I gave my wife a wary look, one which she was wearing as well, and answered, Oh we’re just taking our time, you can go ahead.
At this I made as if to step aside the trail to let her through.
I’m in no rush myself. I just figured I would ask to follow you out so I don’t lose my way. As long as you young folks don’t mind.
I give my wife another look, and she just shrugged a bit. You can’t really get lost, since there’s just this one trail I said to the woman but if you want to follow us that’s fine. We won’t be breaking any landspeed records though. The dogs like to stop and smell the roses.
She smiled at this, but didn’t respond.
As we slowly wove our way up the trail, the woman kept the same distance behind us, and seemed to have no trouble staying with us, despite her age. She was spry and deftly moved around or over any of the obstacles that were occasionally on the trail. It was well maintained, but there was always at least some fallen branches or dislodged rocks to contend with.
At one point, as I was trying to get the dog I was leading, Lola, around a tree I slipped and had to catch myself before I lost my balance and fell. Somewhat embarressed, I looked behind me and said to the woman I think maybe we should be following you out.
A look, dark and disconcerting fell over her face and she said Oh no, that wouldn’t do at all. The look was momentary, though, and replaced by that pleasant smile in the next second.
With just about a half mile to go to the trailhead, a family of four came around the corner in front of us, heading the opposite direction. My wife and I moved out of the way, holding the two dogs close, so that they could get by.
The father nodded to us, and one of the kids, a girl of about nine or ten smiled at the sight of the dogs and waved. Hi doggies she said happily as she walked past.
I looked back, and there stood the old woman. She did not move out of the way or acknowledge the family in any way. Instead she just kept her place in the middle of the narrow trail. The family all moved aside as they walked past, the mom pulling her daughter closer as they did so.
They didn’t even look at her I remember thinking later. The dad had been pointing into the forest at something as he spoke to his son, and the mom and daughter were looking down at the trail.
They had made their way around her as if she was another obstacle. A tree in the middle of the path.
She knew what I was thinking.
She knew that I had seen something.
Are we almost there, son? she asked coyly.
You know damn well we’re almost there I thought.
That was where I could have ended this. I could have told her right then and there to stop following us. To go bother someone else. Or I could have lied and said we had dropped our keys and were going back down the trail to find them.
But I didn’t want to be rude.
So instead I compromised.
There was a steep shortcut in the trail up ahead that was a bit tenuous to walk up, looser footing and not as well maintained. Most people chose the longer route, but this would save a few minutes if you didn’t mind the effort.
Without telling my wife I started up the shortcut, and said loud enough so that the woman would hear, We’re going to take this path up. It’s pretty steep so you probably want to take the regular path. Just keep going how you’re going and you’ll end up at the trailhead.
Oh, I might be able to manage was all she said.
I helped my wife up the steeper portions of the path, holding her hand as she negotiated the portions where the rocks had gotten loose from some recent rains. Once back on the main path I looked back to check on the old woman.
There she was. Still about ten feet from us, walking up the steep shortcut and showing no signs of having difficulty at all. All the litheness of a woman half her age. Or a quarter her age.
Once she was up she looked at me with that smile once again.
Though I didn’t take it as pleasant any longer.
It was mocking.
Can’t get rid of me that easy it said.
The rest of the way we walked in silence, and we soon saw the signs for the parking lot. Once we emerged we turned right, where all the cars were parked in a mostly organized fashion.
I looked behind, and saw that the woman had turned left, down the dusty road to Redstar and away from any of the parked cars.
It was only later, as I was driving back along the bumpy road, a pit of unease in my stomach and many unasked questions between us, that I thought about that vampire rule. The one about having to be invited into your house.
What was the rule about woods and things you may encounter there?
The dogs didn’t react when she first spoke up a nagging voice came to me later. The heelers were always on the alert around strangers, even when you wanted them to just be chill. And they don’t take kindly to being surprised. One dude almost lost a finger when we were out shopping once and decided he was gonna pet one of them without asking us.
So what was it that we found out there in the woods?
And what the hell did we just let out into the world?