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The Willow Woman

Blue Cliff is a place of beauty with majestic mountains and thick, lush forests. But there are things that linger in the rock and trees that no one can explain.

Everyone knows about the man that haunts the wood, but what about the Willow Woman? If you venture down to the old swimming hole on a hot, Virginia summer’s night you may sense you’re not alone. But it’s not the deer or the owls that are keeping you company.

The story goes that a hundred and fifty years ago, just after the people of Blue Cliff ventured out of the holler and settled farther away from the foothills, a young woman, newly married, went out at dusk to pick blackberries.

Her husband was due home from a long day’s work and she wanted berries for a cobbler. They were a loving couple, hoping for a baby, yet so far, no child quickened her womb, which filled her with an ache only a child could fix.

That night, wanting to make her beloved husband happy, she went to the Weeping Willow by the old swimming hole where the ripest berries grew. As she picked the berries, she heard a sound.

She stopped and listened. It sounded like a cry. A baby’s cry. Thinking she was imagining things, she kept on picking berries, until she heard it again. This time, she put down her basket and followed the noise. Walking towards the water, the sound came again, a sound that was very clearly an infant in distress.

“Oh, where are you?” she cried, staring out at the water, her heart full of maternal despair.

There, at the deepest point of the swimming hole, she could see a baby, flailing in the water, its cries echoing across to her. Because she longed for the love only a mother knows, the woman went into the water, determined to help the baby. But in her urgency, she forgot that she didn’t know how to swim. Her good intentions soon transformed into pure terror as she began to sink beneath the surface.

She tried to scream for help, but no one was there to hear her. And the baby? It was gone, as if never there. A figment of her imagination? Maybe. Something more sinister? Perhaps. The mountains are full of devilish things.

The woman drowned and now, on a summer’s night, if you make your way to the old swimming hole, you may hear the sad, plaintive cry of a phantom child and the scared screams of a woman determined to rescue it.

And if you’re particularly unlucky you may see her picking berries by the willow tree. People whisper about the woman. They will ask you if you’ve seen her. But never too loud. There’s danger if she hears you.

The Curse of Blue Cliff

There's a saying in these parts that everyone lives by: "Put the horseshoes above the door and hang the glass bottles in the trees. We will keep the evil away. We will protect our town." There are traditions we all follow without a thought as to why. We only know that there is a history of trouble and strife when you don't. Locals like to think that's what makes Blue Cliff different and a little special. Or it could be something worse. 

One day, long ago, but not so long that we'd forgotten their names, little Edith and Clementine Baker asked their mother to go out and play. "Please Moder," they begged with pleading eyes. 

Their mother, Esther, wanted to keep them safe inside. They hadn't been there long in this new, dangerous land and she was still scared of what lay beyond her door. But no child wants to stay put when a whole unknown world was waiting for them. A world so different than the cold, unforgiving place they left behind. This one was strange and mysterious and ripe for exploring. 

Finally, their mother relented and the girls ran off to play with their friend Hugh who was waiting for them.

They were such sweet children. So innocent. The newly settled town nestled in the valley deep in a dense forest at the foothills of mountains larger than any they had ever seen before, had been through tough times. There had been horrible droughts and the crops weren't yielding enough to keep them fed. Babies were dying and horses lay down in the fields, refusing to get up.  The mountains were proving inhospitable as if they were forcing them out. 

"Remember to stay close. Don't go too far into the woods," Esther called out as the three children ran towards the trees. She watched as they stopped, crouching in the dirt as they whispered secret things. Esther touched the herb wreath she had hung on the door only last week. Dread had been growing with each passing day. The townsfolk felt it too. She saw it in their wary looks and worried murmurs.

Staring out the window, she anxiously watched the children play, a knot of worry building in her stomach. 

She couldn't deny it. This place felt haunted. 

She let her thoughts drift to the new baby growing in her belly. She embraced the distraction from the hard life she lived. 

If only she had looked up, she would have seen the children putting the dirt in their shoes and the coins in their pockets. She would have seen them go further into the woods. Maybe she could have stopped them.

But she didn't. 

That was the first of many days of heartache for the small, burgeoning town. A day when innocence was lost and families grieved. This was to be the curse of Blue Cliff. An endless cycle of fear and despair.

Esther Baker knew, like so many parents after her, that something was coming. She wanted to take her children and run before it was too late. 

Little did she know, it already was. 

Isaac and the Bear

You can’t be raised in Blue Cliff without hearing the stories of the first settlers. Their treacherous journey from the British Isles to the new world is the stuff of legend. Eighty-seven people left the port at Liverpool, England but only thirty-two survived the trip. One of those people was Isaac Bartlett, a merchant from Sussex in England who made the journey with his wife, Eleanor, and their two children Agnes and Thomas. 

The group trekked from Pennsylvania down to the rugged terrain of a mostly unsettled southwest Virginia. It was there, deep in what is now known as Hickory Woods, that they started their fledgling community in the old holler. 

Times were tough though. Crops wouldn’t grow. Babies were dying. This new world clearly didn’t want them there. One particularly dark and bleak winter’s day, Isaac was in the woods trying to find game. Animals were hibernating, so meat was in short supply. His family hadn’t eaten in days, saving what meager rations they had for his sickly children. He needed to find something soon or his family, and the other people of the holler, wouldn’t survive the winter. 

He didn’t know how far he traveled, only that the paths became unfamiliar and the great mountain grew ever closer. He was half delirious with cold and hunger when he felt a strange stirring in the air. The woods had gone quiet. The usual winter birds were silent. He looked around, wondering what was going on when he saw it. A monstrous beast skulking through the undergrowth. It was a black bear. The biggest he had ever seen. The forest was full of them when days were warmer, but this animal should be sleeping. 

Isaac aimed his roughly fashioned bow, trying to find the lethal shot. That’s when the bear lifted its head. Its eyes seemed to glow with a devilish red glint. They stared at each other for a long moment. Then the bear began to charge. Isaac stood frozen, watching as it barreled toward him. Knowing death was coming for him, he shook out of his daze and shot the bear with an arrow. Then another. Then another. Each landed true, piercing the bear’s hide, and should have killed it. But instead, the bear kept running preternaturally fast as if fueled by an uncanny force. 

Isaac was well acquainted with fear. They were old friends. As he faced the bear, terror coursing through his body, he was certain that this was no beast, but something otherworldly that he’d never be able to kill.  Despite his terror, he kept shooting arrows until one embedded in the animal’s demonic red eye. It was only then that the beast stopped. It panted heavily. It watched him and Isaac swore he saw intelligence there. Rage and hate too. And then as suddenly as it had attacked, it fell, its heavy body crashing to the forest floor. 

The bear fed the people of the holler for weeks, ensuring their survival. But many reported feelings of unease as they ate the meat. They would see the shadow of a menacing beast out of the corner of their eye as if it were hounding them. Though saved from starvation, many people of the holler found that madness took them instead.

And Isaac knew he had narrowly avoided death that day. But in killing the bear he feared he unleashed something much more sinister upon his neighbors. And he knew it would haunt him for the rest of his days. The creature forever waiting in the shadows for the chance to take him once and for all. 

The Gray Lights of Hickory Holler

There are stories of ghostly lights from almost every culture in the world. From the will-o'-the-wisp in England to the Aleya Ghost Lights in West Bengal, India. They are all described as a mysterious glowing orb floating or flickering in the distance. Sometimes they're in the swamp. Sometimes over a plain. But the residents of Blue Cliff find them deep in The Hickory Woods, close to what was once the earliest settlement—Hickory Holler. 

As with many stories of our forest, this one begins with children. Back in the late 1700's the holler was inhabited by the descendants of those early settlers. One day, a brother and sister were gathering kindling. They had been gone for a while. So long that the sun, which had been overhead when they left, was now dipping low on the horizon. 

The children knew they had ventured too far when the paths were no longer familiar. The mountain lay ahead, its rocks looking like jagged teeth. They should have been nervous. They had been told, over and over, not to linger too long beyond the well-trodden paths. The boy insisted they turn around and make their way back home. The girl, the wilder of the two, refused. not wanting to leave his sister behind, the boy carried on, misgivings making his steps heavy. 

And then, like other tales of the deep, dark woods, the trees were blanketed in an eerie silence. The birds went quiet. The animals were still. The wind began to blow with a ferociousness that was both uncanny and terrifying. 

The boy insisted again that they go home. "Ma will be worried," he pleaded. This time, the girl agreed, for she too felt the presence that they had always been warned about. As they began to quickly make their way back, something flickered ahead of them. An orb glowing in a hazy, grayish light.

The children stopped to stare. It seemed to dart in and out of the branches, leading them along a path they didn't know. Curiosity got the better of them and they followed it. But they could never get close enough to see what it was. It drifted farther and farther away and the boy and girl hurried after it. Night fell and the quiet woods became an ominous place, but the gray light remained. 

Finally, it stopped and hovered in the air. The children ran towards it, their hands outreached as if to touch the magic. But at the last moment, the boy, sensing danger, pulled his sister's arm back. "Don't!" he shouted. Looking down at their feet, they realized they were at the edge of a steep cliff. Another step and they would have both fallen over only to meet their death in the ravine below. They could see the bleached bones of other bodies scattered at the bottom.

The light was now gone. The two children, shaken and scared, hurried back to the holler, and never again strayed too far into the trees. Ever since then, people claim to see the gray light, saying its intent is to lead them to harm. As the saying goes; 'Don't follow the glow, instead return home, and you might live another day.' 

The Hickory Man

Our most famous legends happen in the woods. There are many about the man named after the hickory trees who steals children away. Many of the stories about Blue Cliff happened long ago, yet some aren't hundreds of years old. This is the case of our last tale, which is often shared by the very people who lived it. It's their experience that reminds us to heed the old ways. Or suffer the consequences. You will recognize their names, for they still live in town. They insist we share their story because it's in the forgetting that we become vulnerable.

Fifty-five years ago a group of children who had a mind for mischief and a heart for trouble, ignored the old stories and decided to go deep into the woods. Even though all the children of Blue Cliff are taught from an early age to carry the dirt and the silver and to never, ever go into the woods, enough time had passed since the last whispers of missing children to convince them they were safe. Ed Grady was the leader. He'll be the first to tell you he was a foolish boy and too confident for his won good. Trailing after him, but just as eager, was Linda Brown and Darla Dunlap, followed by Otis Wheeler and Paul Campbell. This group of best friends were always together. 

The summer of '68 was particularly hot and the swimming hole had run dry as it often did during droughts. Wanting to escape the heat, Ed suggested going to Hickory Woods. 'Maybe we can find the man,' he taunted his friends. So, they trekked off to the forest, ignoring their better sense in seeking some ill-advised fun, determined to find the demon that haunted the trees. 

It wasn't long before they lost their way. The markers they had left for themselves mysteriously disappeared and they began to head closer to the old holler and the mountain beyond. The sun dipped low in teh sky and suddenly the wind began to pick up. 

Darla was the first to notice the birds had stopped singing and there were no animals scurrying around. Linda and Paul, the youngest of teh group, will say they felt the terror that had been passed down fro their parents and grandparents.

It's when they stopped looking for the man that he found them.

Otis pointed to a dark shape int eh distance. It looked more like a shadow than a human. It seemed to glide through the trees, matching their steps with effortless ease.

The kids began to run. Though it didn't matter how far they went, the man was right behind them. He moved like a ghost, but his presence disturbed the leaves, like a living, breathing person.

It wanted them. And they knew if they didn't find their way out of Hickory Woods, they'd never leave. 

As the sun set, the man drew ever closer until all they could see were two red glowing orbs in place of his eyes.

All the kids heard him whisper in their ears, calling to them, saying their names.

By some divine grace, they burst through the treeline at the edge of Campbell farm. They were safe. But when they turned back they could still see him, lingering by the trees, watching them.

They claim to have felt him every day after that until they reached adulthood and grew beyond his reach. From then on, they always carried the dirt and the silver. They hung the herbs on their doors and burned the pine at New Year's. 

And the children that so quickly forgot the old ways learned to live bye them once they grew up.

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