The Haunting of Romney Wood, Part One

 The Things She Done

The witch’s spirit had inhabited Romney Wood for 134 years.

And she was tired.

Here’s how the most popular version of the story goes:

1976. Back when Romney Wood had its name.  Before it became the Blackhill Natural Resource Area.  Nobody thought about preservation or anything like that.  No rangers, no busy-body conservationists.  Romney Wood was a sheltered forest clambering around and over Blackhill, elevation 970 feet.

Around the base of the hill ran the railroad, plowing out of the east, crossing the Blackhill Creek over a long, old trestle. Most of that trestle now gone; washed out after the flood of 85. The trains stopped running in 83. But in 76, that was still a vital route.

After crossing the creek, the trains slowed down to negotiate the twisting tracks that clung to the mountain, just a breath above the waters of Blackhill Creek, which can get pretty treacherous at the right rime of year. The tracks eventually hit Old Holland Tunnel, which is still there if you’re crazy enough to go looking. They sealed it up when the trains stopped, but all they did was throw up some cinderblocks.

The Sunday train would always slow to a dead crawl and one of the brakemen, a man by the name of Shelby Marks, would always drop off a sack full of food, soda, and medicine.  For some reason, he felt responsible for the Witch, despite all the things she had been accused of.

It was May 12th, 1976, when Shelby Marks leapt off his train and ran up the slope, through the gnarled woods that clung to that old mountain, and approached the Witch’s house.  The last standing remnant of a long-abandoned oil boomtown.  Black Hill.  You won’t find it on the map. The town’s been dead since 1900.

Hard to believe today but, all through this area there was oil in those hills.  The oil and gas boom hit in the 1850’s and 60’s and, by the time 1900 rolled around, the boom had died.  Shanty towns – and some that were more substantial – simply faded into the mountains and forest.  Without oil, without money, they were just useless buildings in the back end of nowhere.  Black Hill was one of those towns, accessible only by the rail tracks and the government road that crossed the Blackhill creek some 20 miles to the north, and that’s long gone.

The Witch lived in what, around 1880, would have been considered a nice place, as far as such a thing could exist in a dying oiltown.  By 1976, it was a grim, dark house slowly rotting back into the ground.  But the Witch still lived there…and had always lived there.

Nobody knew her name.  A few local variations of the legend say that she was Amanda Atherton, last descendent of the family that founded Black Hill before the Civil War. Most folks assume she was just a drifter. Nobody knew about her till 1963, when old Shelby Marks first saw her standing beside the burnt out remains of the Black Hill Station. He was smoking and called down from the caboose if she was okay, and she called back that she would appreciate some Coca Cola next time.  The next week, she was standing and waiting and Shelby handed her a bottle of Coke and that day’s newspaper as he went by.

The Witch was old in 1963.  She leaned on a cane, wore a striped blue and white Gingham dress (Shelby would never see her wearing anything else) and had her hair tied back in a bun.

She didn’t thank Shelby, nor did she ask for anything else.  But, the next Sunday, when Shelby saw her standing by the station again, he handed down a dinner that his wife had made and another bottle of Coke.

Every Sunday, Shelby had a gift of some sort for her.  She grabbed them from the side of the caboose as he held them out, the train creeping past, and never again spoke to Shelby.  Though something in her eyes seemed to haunt him. Until the day he died in 1997, Shelby said that he would dream of those moments – creeping past the ruins of Black Hill and handing out a package to the Witch – every single night of his life.  He retired from the railroad in 1980, and spent those last 17 years thinking of the Witch’s eyes, and her slight frame standing there, rain or shine, waiting for a handout. And the dream would always morph into nightmare…a moment of his life that would haunt him to his dying day.

For Shelby, taking care of the Witch became an obsession.  He began packing bags of supplies, letting them gently drop to the tracks from the rear of the caboose so the Witch could pick them up at her leisure.  Sometimes he called out to her, tried to get her to engage in conversation, but she would always ignore him.

One Sunday, the Witch didn’t show up. Shelby dropped off his sack, leaving it by the side of the tracks where she usually stood, and found himself leaning against the rail and staring back through the empty forest until the whistle screamed and they hit the tunnel, the forested curve a fading pinpoint of light.

That next week, when the train came around, Shelby phoned the engineer and asked him to take it extra slow.  He leaned out and saw the sack from last week, and he knew something had happened.  He radioed his intentions, then leapt off the back of the train and bolted through the underbrush and old foundations, climbing the hill, knowing that he didn’t have time to find the Witch’s house, and that he would have to turn around and get back to the train as quickly as possible.

But her house was right there, behind a shielding row of ancient Oaks.  He pushed through a few struggling boxwoods and ran up to her porch and pounded on the door.  It swung open under the force of his blows, and he looked inside.

The stench of death sliced through his obsession and concern as he stared in horror at the entrance hall, strewn with bodies of men, women, and children, as well as several animals.  Some were just bones, some had been dead for just a few weeks.  All were twisted as if they had been in great pain when they died.

He stumbled backwards and nearly fell off the porch, then spun around.  The front yard of the house had been reclaimed by the forest. Vines of ivy, young trees, and tall grass competed for dominance.  Though something of a path had been made leading down through the Oaks towards the old train station.

Tied to nearly every tree was a doll.  Figures of straw, featureless.  Some were clothed, some were darkly dyed, and all were hanging from the branches by their necks.

Nailed into a twisted Dogwood beside the porch were all of the Coca Cola bottle caps that the Witch had received from Shelby over the last 13 years.  Only one doll hung from that tree, and the crudely made clothing on the doll was close of Shelby’s uniform.  So much so that he unconsciously reached up and removed his hat, his hands shaking.

Shelby was no fool.  He didn’t investigate further.  He turned to run, and then froze in his tracks.  A keening wail rose in the woods and, at first, he told himself it was the train whistle.  But it seemed to come from the house.  The front door slammed shut and each doll-marked tree started shaking as a cyclone of wind seemed to whip through the yard.  He looked back at the house and saw the Witch in one of the second floor windows, her blue and white dress stark and clean against the moldering sideboards and rotting shutters.  She raised her cane and pointed at him, and then he did hear the train whistle as it entered the tunnel.

He ran.  He ran without looking back, and with only one panicked thought in his head: What if he couldn’t catch up with the train?  What if he fell?  What would he do if he was trapped with the Witch?  What would she do?

The caboose was just moving into the tunnel as he rounded the bend, racing down the tracks, a hard, cold wind behind him.  He leapt onto the rail and pulled himself on board, and then was plunged into blackness.

Old Holland Tunnel was full of more sounds than just the train.  There were screams echoing around the dripping walls, and shapes in the murky blackness to either side of the tracks.  Something tried to scuttle up onto the caboose, and Shelby started kicking at it.  He would tell his wife – and no one else – that what he saw was a long-fingered, pale white hand reaching for the short ladder on the left side of the caboose.

After a few kicks, the white thing let go, and he stared at shadows upon shadows, sitting down, as the train curved slightly and the pinpoint of light vanished.  The horrific sounds stopped, and he stood, only to feel a hand on his shoulder and a whispering, deep-country lilt in his ear, “These are the things I done.”

He turned, and found that he was alone.  He lunged into the caboose, radioed to the locomotive, and felt as if he couldn’t blink or breathe again until the train slowly pulled out of the tunnel and into the light on the other side of Blackhill.