To whomever might be reading this, I pray you have escaped my fate. Documented in these pages is a tale of misfortune and grief that has sealed me within a cursed town. Should this letter have reached the outside world, I implore you: do not try to enter the silent hills of Ravenbrook. It is haunted by a horrid curse, and though its plague is no longer fatal, should you try to leave, neither man nor beast can help you.
My name is James Sunderland. I am a linguist and historian. When I discovered the town of Ravenbrook, it intrigued me as any good historic mystery would. According to my sources, it was a town devoid of spoken words. The people went about their business and lived their lives without uttering a noise. Their communication therefore evolved into an entirely unique form of signs, expressions, and gestures.
What incited the silence remained unspecified. The only agreement among my sources was mention of some manner of curse. How the curse came to be and if there was an end to it was never made clear, but such are the ways of myths and fables.
With my interest piqued and appetite whetted to solve a good mystery, I set out to travel to Ravenbrook and find out for myself what manner of history had brought the town to silence.
I did not make my intentions widely known since there was a deep superstition regarding the town. “Those who enter never return. Those who seek it never find it. One is struck dumb for even laying eyes on it.” At the time I was not given to believing in ghosts and specters. Though I tell you now my opinions on such things have changed.
My journey took three days by train and horseback. Upon nearing the outer border of the town, I felt a heaviness in the air like a violent storm was approaching, but the sky remained clear.
While I hope whoever is reading this has never the need to lay eyes on Ravenbrook, I will endeavor to describe it to you.
Ravenbrook is settled in the hollow of a valley, surrounded by gentle rolling hills. It is, in a word, quaint. It followed the traditional form of villages of its time, with wooden-walled houses and thatch roofs. Straight dirt paths connected the houses to each other and the central meeting house. To the south was a market and the town’s well. To the west, a collection of farms with livestock and crops next to a small river. To the north and east was a thick forest that, when I think back, looked remarkably like a bestial hand grasping for the outermost buildings.
As I walked down the main road, the very air itself stilled into silence. The few people out and about stopped and stared as I walked by, many gesturing to each other, then gesturing at me.
In consideration of the town’s mutism, I brought with me a small pad of paper and pencil through which I could make my intentions known. On it I inscribed my name, profession, and purpose with the town and its people. I showed this to a braver townsman, who dragged his eyes across the words and looked up at me with what I now know was an expression of fear and incredulity.
He then thrust my pad back into my hands and shoved me back down the road I had just traversed, making many a wild gesture akin to shooing vermin out of a house.
Only now do I understand the reason for his haste. If only I had heeded his gestures and left at once, I might have escaped the town. Yet I dug my heels into the dirt and evaded the man’s further attempts to oust me. I did my best to write a reply to the man’s actions when the temperature plummeted to such a degree that I could see my breath.
The townsfolk immediately rushed for the safety of the nearest building, and my frustrated host seized my wrist and dragged me inside as well. I opened my mouth, forgetting myself, and made ready to voice my displeasure. Fortunately, the man was speedy with his reflexes and pressed his palm over my lips so that not a sound escaped me.
I doubt that then, in that next moment, I would have been able to make any noise at all. For what reached my ears was the most horrendous cry any man has had the misfortune of hearing.
The cry might have been human. It was close, yet it fell short of humanity while too far from any known beast. It was something neither man nor animal, and even now I cannot correctly describe what it might be, whether demon or specter or something else entirely. The fact that it was so near to human and yet not . . . that was the true terror.
In the light of the room, the man locked his eyes with mine and held a finger to his lips. I, wide-eyed and struck dumb, nodded my understanding. The man released me, yet I, not trusting my own self, put my own hand where his had been. With the other I managed to ask what it was that made that awful cry.
The man took my pad and gingerly etched three words into the paper. Three words that made the name of this town’s misery.
The Wailing Woodsman.
Mock the name if you so choose. It is a ridiculous one. I myself was tickled at the name. But do not let it make you forget what atrocities it has committed, such that an entire community of good humanity has relinquished its voices in fear of it.
That day was my first encounter with the Wailing Woodsman, though I hesitate to call what was only heard an encounter. The air was chilled such that my light jacket could not repel it. A thick fog obscured the window, and something moved within that mist, a dark form that moved swiftly and silently. The only sound it made was that awful cry.
It slunk down the main road toward the town’s outer edge. I calculated that it stopped just past the first building when it let out a laugh.
Shall I describe the sound? It was a laugh, for certain, yet as I’ve said, it was not quite human. It seemed like the voices of many people, male and female, overlapped and clashed with each other, all sounding at once.
I uncovered my face in favor of my ears. I pressed against them so hard my head rang, yet the sound crept in and forced my acknowledgement.
Then, as quickly as it came, it was gone. The mist evaporated, and the air returned to its normal climate. I was glad for the silence.
I looked over at the man with me. He still had my paper and a deep sorrow on his face. He then prescribed me my fate.
“It knows you are here,” the man wrote. “Now you cannot leave.”
He handed me the pad and stood to leave. I grasped his sleeve and hurriedly wrote to him. “What is the Wailing Woodsman? Why are you all silent?”
But the man lifted his hand and shook his head. He left and continued on his way, eyes a glassy sheen of pity.
I will not bore you with my next few days, for they were largely unproductive. I stayed at an inn, the keeper of which was gracious enough to lend me a room for a fraction of its usual price. I conducted the basic living businesses in silence, which, having no one to converse with, was less of a struggle than I imagined.
I approached a few people, asking them about the Woodsman and why the town was mute, but got no good replies.
At last, after a week of doing little but moping, answers came to me in the form of a young woman, a pretty and world-weary lady named Heather Mason. I had seen her about town now and then, but she always evaded my attempts to approach her. A few of the townspeople offered their opinions of her: she was kind and temperate, and her signed language was graceful and pleasing to watch.
Yet many of them had a rougher opinion that she was determined to throw herself after shadows and old myths in attempts to find an answer to the town’s curse. All in vain, they told me. She’d been doing it for years, yet never came any closer.
Then one day she approached me with a paper pad of her own and a determined look on her face. “I have the answers you seek,” she wrote simply.
My mission apparently back on track, I followed her to her house. She did not waste our time with pleasantries and took me straight to the attic, from which she procured a trunk. The thing was light for its size, and she took it down to the living room, setting it on the floor with an air of finality.
She flipped the latches open, and the lid soon followed. I peered over her shoulder to get a better look. Inside was a collection of papers, a few odd shiny baubles, some dried plants in a jar, and a journal. It was this final thing Heather drew from the trunk.
I took the journal with some sense of reverence. Inside the cover was a name, Murphy Pendleton, and the first dated entry went back some sixty years.
Heather directed me to the bookmark. The entry was just under fifty years ago, in October.
While I have the journal available, I lack the time and patience to recount verbatim what was written, so I will summarize.
Mr. Pendleton was an arborist. He would spend most of his time in the woods studying plant growth and local animals. He eventually came across a tree that, by all evidence available, seemed to have been alive for centuries despite its species only living for an average of fifty years.
The space this tree grew in was devoid of all other life, plant or animal. Everywhere it cast shade was bare and dead. In addition, no matter the time of year, the air felt as frigid as winter, yet there was never frost.
It was here the Wailing Woodsman was first encountered. Pendleton saw a figure in the shade, something that looked to him like a man holding an axe. He called out to this mysterious woodsman, and it repeated his words in his voice, yet it sounded distortedly inhuman. The mist rolled in, and the Woodsman gave chase.
Pendleton fled for his life toward the town. Just as he reached the edge of the woods, the Woodsman caught him. Mist blinded him, and he was struck in the throat. Pendleton described the experience as claws tearing through his neck, yet they did not cut his skin.
Then the Woodsman seemed to let him go. Pendleton ran the rest of the way into town, where many folk realized his distress and asked him what had happened. Yet he could not tell them. The Woodsman had struck him silent.
Worse yet, the Woodsman had not returned to the forest. It followed Pendleton to the town, and when it heard the people speaking, it began to speak in their voices. Then it took the voices for itself.
Walls meant nothing to it. It invaded wherever its mist could seep in. Any voice it heard, it collected. Those who shouted to warn others to stay quiet fell to the Woodsman’s curse.
It was noon the next day by the time the Woodsman left. Those who could still speak dared not to.
Then the plague took hold. The Whispering Plague, they called it. It was the Woodsman’s curse. All those it touched were rendered mute and got a horrific cough that worsened until the victim hacked up his own throat. Most died of fatigue, some could not eat or drink and starved, and none of them were able to sleep properly.
It was not contagious, but entirely fatal. None who were afflicted survived. Such was the fate of Murphy Pendleton, though his journal was continued by his son, Robert.
Robert described the town in the aftermath. Anyone who used their voice was immediately caught and struck by the Woodsman. No one truly knew a standardized sign language, so the people invented their own.
As was the way of humanity, new children were born. By either fate or some awful humor, the Woodsman ignored the cries of infants and young children. Mothers trained their sons and daughters in the signs and silence, and so spared them from the Whispering Plague.
Many years passed without the Woodsman being sighted, such that many of the younger men suspected there was never any such thing. So was the downfall of a young man left unnamed in the journal.
He was an arrogant fellow who regarded the Woodsman’s existence as pure myth. So, he set out to prove whether there was such a specter as the Wailing Woodsman.
He stood in the middle of town, several of his fellows watching from a distance they thought safe, Robert himself among them. Then, as he had never been trained in pronouncing spoken words, the boy let out a great yell.
The elder townsfolk stared in horror. Then an event much like my first entrance into town occurred.
The air chilled. The mist came. The Woodsman returned the boy’s yell.
The young man realized too late that everything was true. The Wailing Woodsman ignored his dumbstruck friends and caught him alone.
It only took three days for the plague to claim him.
More time passed, and Robert began to investigate the woods his father once studied. He claimed his primary reason was that the woods seemed to be moving closer to the town but admitted privately that he wanted to find the old tree the Woodsman came from.
It took a few months, but he did find the tree. He described the path he took to get there, directions I put to memory for later, and again described the dead hollow the tree resided in. Robert dared not get closer and left after only a few minutes with the distinct feeling he was being watched.
Then a stranger came to town. Ravenbrook had not seen outsiders in such a long time that it startled them to remember the rest of the world existed. The stranger was a priest, though of what religion, Robert did not document.
Unlike myself, who did not come face to face with the Woodsman, the priest did. Within the hour of him coming into town, the Woodsman came with its mist to investigate.
Robert described the event best he could, though admitted he had no idea what was truly happening within the mist. What he did describe I dared to imagine.
The Woodsman spoke to the priest with discernable words in its horrible voice. It tried to goad him into talking with greetings and questions, even some exclamations in attempts to startle the man into shouting.
Yet the priest held firm. The Woodsman, unable to coax out his voice, laughed and said something Robert couldn’t comprehend. He guessed it said, “Cannot leave,” but applied no surety to that.
After a time, the priest determined the Woodsman was some manner of devilish spirit that needed to be exorcised. Yet the need for spoken words hampered the prospect.
Finally, the priest set out to leave with the promise of returning with more holy men and perhaps some soldiers to relieve the town of the Woodsman.
Yet as he left the town’s border, the Woodsman’s unknown final declaration made itself known. Robert correctly guessed its words, and it acted accordingly.
Before anyone could react, the priest was struck down. Despite the Whispering Plague taking his voice, he resolved to leave that day, and so he did. The townsfolk watched him as he walked and eventually couldn’t hear his coughing anymore.
A few held out hope that the priest would keep his promise, yet weeks turned into months, and eventually a year passed, and the townsfolk determined that they were once again on their own.
Robert continued stealing away to the Woodsman’s tree. A few times he thought he saw the Woodsman itself but always fled whenever he suspected it.
The final entries were a mere seven years ago. In it, Robert decided to go to the tree and stay there for as long as he could. He wanted to bring back samples of the tree itself from which he might be able to find an answer to the Woodsman’s curse, whether in banishing it or at least finding a cure for its Whispering Plague. Robert intended to bring a pistol with him and see if the Woodsman bled.
The last entry’s page was blotted with old blood stains. Robert’s hand was shaky and barely legible. The Woodsman had caught him. It had been two days since the Whispering Plague had taken hold. He couldn’t sleep, nor could he eat, and he kept coughing blood.
But he did partially succeed. He managed to get a small branch from the tree, though he doubted he would be able to do anything with its bark or leaves before the plague killed him. He’d shot at the Woodsman—at least, what he believed was the Woodsman—and heard the bullet strike something followed by an awful scream.
He urged whoever was reading his journal to do something with the branch he had gotten and was adamant that the Woodsman was indeed a physical being that could be shot. And if it could be shot, then it could be wounded, and if wounded then perhaps killed.
The remaining pages, though few, were blank.
Heather continued the story, which had sadly gone nowhere since Robert’s death. Robert’s belongings had been locked away and the branch burned. No one shared his hope that the Woodsman could be defeated, and no one else dared risk going to the tree to find out.
Heather had found the journal two years ago and had done her best to continue Robert’s work, but she admitted she was too afraid to go to the woods and didn’t know how to handle a gun. No one had offered to go with her, either.
Noble as I thought I was, I immediately offered my help. If the Woodsman could indeed be dispatched, then the curse would be lifted. I could leave and return home. It was a chance I wanted to take for Heather’s sake if not my own, for I will admit I fancied her.
We made our plans over the next week and set off into the forest just after sunrise. I had with me a pistol and musket, both already loaded. Heather carried a bag, in which was a small saw. The plan was simple: take a branch from the tree and hopefully not need to use the guns.
The forest had changed since Robert had penned his directions, so it took us the better part of an hour to find the tree.
It was unchanged from the journal’s descriptions. Bare, dead dirt sat in stark contrast to the grasses and shrubbery. The change in climate was strange, yet the blood rushing through our veins did enough to keep us warm.
Heather set about cutting a low bough while I kept watch for any moving shadows or mist. I kept the musket barrel raised as I scanned the higher branches for anything lurking.
My eyes settled on a shadow that seemed a little darker than the rest. I moved to get a better look, and the shadow moved along with me. My heart leapt in my chest as I realized I was looking at the Wailing Woodsman.
It looked at me too, I assumed. It had no visible features. It moved like it was weightless and, like its voice, did not have an entirely human form.
Then it spoke. “Hello?” it asked.
Heather froze and looked at me. I gestured that she keep working.
“Hello?” the Woodsman said again. “Hello.”
I kept the musket barrel carefully aimed at the center of its dark mass.
“Who’s there. Hello. Hello there. How is today?”
I felt ill listening to it. Its voice sounded like many overlapping at once. Some voices didn’t speak at the same time as others, giving the noise a nauseating echo with conflicting intonations. It sounded hypnotic and horrific.
“Who are you. What are you. What is that thing. What are you. What are you? Hello. Say. Say. Say. Talk. Can’t hear you. Name?”
Heather’s branch snapped free. She stuffed it, leaves and all, into the bag. We began backing to the edge of the clearing, Heather keeping behind me and I keeping my eye on the thing in the tree.
“Name?” The Woodsman kept speaking with its stolen voices. “Name. What are you. Can’t hear you. Say. Talk. Talk. TALK!!!”
The interjection startled me. My hand, tense with adrenaline and cold, pulled the trigger.
Fire spat from the barrel. The Woodsman plunged downward and hit the dirt hard.
I slung the musket over my shoulder and pulled out the pistol. We were only three paces from the edge of the clearing. Three paces too far.
I took Heather’s hand and turned to leave.
Then I saw white. The Woodsman’s mist had surrounded us. Heather’s hand was wrenched from my grasp, and I saw a shadow in the white. I took aim but hesitated. I couldn’t tell beast from woman in the mist, and the last thing I wanted to do was shoot Heather.
The Woodsman screeched. I heard a human scream as well. Then the scream cut short, and I knew the worst had happened. A shadow moved behind me and I turned, lifting the pistol.
My own face screamed back at me. But it wasn’t my face. It was, but it was so horrifically wrong. I pulled the trigger. The face contorted, and the scream intensified with an entire crowd of voices.
It only took an instant for my voice to join them.
Then it was over. The mist evaporated, and the Woodsman disappeared.
I fought against the horrible pain in my throat and helped Heather stand. I tossed the crushed remains of the pistol into the foliage; the Woodsman had grabbed and destroyed it.
We both began to cough when we reached town again.
As you might have surmised, we both were afflicted with the Whispering Plague. However, using the branch we acquired, Heather made a tea from its wood and leaves. Though it tasted terrible, it saved us from death. We are the first to survive the plague.
Since we discoverd a cure, there was a great sense of hope among the people, yet it did not solve the problem the Woodsman itself posed. Since it was indeed susceptible to bullets, there have since been hunts for it, yet even around the tree we have yet to find it. Every time one man can shoot it, the Woodsman will strike down three more, and we have not been able to get more branches from the tree since the Woodsman now guards it with a fury.
As for myself, my original intentions remain largely unchanged. I now learn from necessity the sign language of this silent hollow. It is a life of sorts, and I might come to believe this life is indeed living.
And you, dear reader, who are hopefully free of any sort of Wailing Woodsman, I implore you to speak. Even if you must speak with your hands or your pen, always speak. Always communicate. A voice is a gift that should be heard.
Perhaps, one day, the Silent Hollow of Ravenbrook will be heard.