RAVEN ROCK
by Alex Rosenberg
 

WE WERE HALFWAY there when I found out about the ghost.

‘You know why Raven Rock is famous, don’t you?’ asked Jerry.

I shook my head. The main path had followed a brook, and we’d just taken a small wooden bridge over that brook and onto a trail marked with a blue sign: ‘To Raven Rock.’

‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’’ Jerry said. ‘By Washington Irving. You know, the Headless Horseman. You read that one, Nick?’

‘Definitely. I mean, I think I’ve heard about it.’

The trail narrowed and led us under a thick cover of trees, which darkened the dirt beneath our feet even on this warm September Sunday.

‘Yeah. Anyway. In the story, they’re smoking pipes and someone mentions “The Lady in White.” The idea being that she died at Raven Rock and still haunts it. That she can be heard shrieking to this day. Of course, “this day” was sometime in the 18th century, so who knows if she’s still around.’

I smiled politely. ‘That’s good to know,’ I said.

‘Spooky, huh? Want a clementine?’ Jerry reached into his pants and removed two squished orange orbs.

‘Maybe later.’

He handed me one, then plunged his thumb into the centre of the other, ripping off the peel and finishing it in a few bites. I put mine in my pocket.

‘I never walk snackless,’ Jerry said after he’d finished, extending an index finger for emphasis.

A bearded man in a bucket hat squeezed past us, herding along two small boys. He looked up and gave a smiling nod, which Jerry returned with the addition of a ‘Beautiful day.’ I thought to myself that we must appear an odd pair to passersby. I was about a foot taller and fifty years younger than my white-moustached companion, but he was the one setting our brisk pace.

Jerry had recently become my stepgrandfather. Everyone was up in Westchester for the long weekend to celebrate the marriage of his daughter and my dad. Jerry and I were the only single ones left in the family—he was a widower, and I’d recently returned to America after a stint playing rugby in Italy’s northeast corner.

Jerry and I had bonded over physics. It had been my favourite subject in college, and he still ran a top experimental physics lab. When he offered to show me around Rockefeller Preserve I’d accepted immediately, relieved for a reason to get away from the endless festivities.

‘That’s why we’re walking this way? Because of the story?’

‘It’s quite a sight,’ Jerry assured me. ‘A huge rock shelf in the middle of the woods. Kind of ominous. But impressive. You’ll see.’

A reddish chipmunk ran across the path in front of us, so small and fast I hardly saw its black stripe. It disappeared into a thicket of bushes.

‘Have you done this walk a lot?’

‘Once or twice,’ Jerry said. ‘I don’t really like doing it alone.’

The trail descended between a steep ledge to our left and a gorge off to our right. The trees got shorter, letting in even less light. The leaves hadn’t yet turned.

‘Coming up to it,’ Jerry eventually announced.

The woods started to give off the mustier smells of mushrooms and burnt-out cigars. The path took one last leg down, then flattened out. As we got out from under the heavy tree cover, an imposing cliff face jutted into view.

Chunky and gnarled, grey and rectangular, it was both taller and wider than I’d imagined. There was something almost barbaric about its bigness. In the middle of these modest woods, it looked like a visitor from another era.

‘Wow.’

‘It’s something, huh?’ Jerry was pleased by my reaction.

The trail we had walked down ended in a small loop just in front of the jagged formation. Raven Rock is the kind of feature that doesn’t need a marker. Once you saw it, you could tell right away it was the reason the trail had been blazed.

Jerry took a few more steps, and I followed behind. He glanced back toward me and pointed to a tall tree standing in front of the cliff like a palace guard. ‘See that tree? That’s where—’

He cut off. He was looking downward. It took me a few seconds. Then I saw.

A woman lying on the ground. Slender body limp. Face in the dirt. Clean white shirt riding up her back. Black hair clotted with red blood.

Jerry rushed over.

She wasn’t exactly on the trail. About twenty feet from the peak of Raven Rock, she rested in the small patch of sparse grass around which the trail looped.

Jerry dropped to his knees. ‘Oh gosh,’ I heard him say. ‘Goodness.’

He turned her over carefully. ‘Oh gosh,’ he said again. ‘Fractured the front of her skull.’

I looked, then felt my neck snap my head away. Even that glance was enough to confirm that she was dead.

‘Must have just happened,’ Jerry said quietly. ‘Must have just happened. Oh goodness.’

Still on his knees, Jerry looked up to the rock face. ‘Huh,’ he said, his eyes lingering. Then back at the woman.

At that moment a strange noise came from above, the sound of great motion. My entire body tightened into a shaking crouch. I looked up into the trees and saw a shadow whipping through the leaves. The shadow landed.

It was, I realized, a tremendous black bird. A raven. It had chosen that moment to move from a distant tree to the one Jerry had indicated a moment ago—the tree that guarded the rock.

The raven, big as three rugby balls, was looking me. I didn’t want to return its gaze, but couldn’t look away, either. It loomed crookedly on a branch.

Then another ‘Oh gosh’ brought my mind back to the body, and my brain tried to find the connection. Could this raven, I haltingly thought… did it have something to do with this?

‘Nick!’ Jerry called, jumping to his feet. ‘This woman was—well, it seems—looking for someone nearby! It just happened! And there’s only one path, so—’ Jerry fell silent. His body shivered with adrenaline. I looked at him helplessly.

Then the raven started flapping again, flying out of the tree and into the thick woods off to one side of the rock. As I followed its path with my eyes I saw in the trees a flash of skin, two darting eyes—

A broad man in a green shirt came rushing out from the woods. He weaved around me and took off back up the path at full speed.

I stood there in a dumb daze for a second. ‘Get him! Hold him! I’ll catch up! Go!’

My body obeyed my stepgrandfather. I sprinted uphill hard. And kept going. I couldn’t see the man around the trail’s curve, but I knew that until he got to the bridge there was only one way to go.

The forest flew by in a green and beige haze. I was doing two strides on the inhale and one on the exhale. Then one-stride inhales and one-stride exhales. Then back to two-and-ones.

I rounded a natural bend and there he was, just twenty feet ahead of me. Running hard for the bridge that goes back to the main path.

I couldn’t let him reach it. Even if I saw whether he took a left or right, how would Jerry know where to find us?

I was closing in. As he got close to the bridge, I was only ten feet behind.

Without breaking stride, I reached into my pocket for that clementine. I threw it full force at his back.

It smashed against his head, catching him mid-stride. He stumbled over the short bridge and slowed as he felt the back of his neck in a panic, probably mistaking the juice for blood.

I took the bridge in a single leap and pounced. I tackled him, then pinned him to the dirt.

His body writhed under mine, but I had the advantage in weight and strength. And I was already on top.

‘Get off me, man,’ I heard him say brokenly. ‘What are you doing? Get off me.’

The spent clementine rolled off into the brook.

‘Just hold on,’ I said, panting. ‘Wait.’

I could smell the beads of sweat in the man’s inch-long hairs. I moved my legs over his back to straddle him, then sat up with my knees on the ground, pressing down on his head with my hands.

‘You can’t do this to me, man,’ he coughed out. ‘What is this?’

‘Just wait here,’ I instructed unnecessarily.

He tried scratching my arms, so I let his head go and grabbed his wrists. ‘Get off! Stop touching me!’

With nothing to say, I stopped responding. He eventually ceased struggling. We waited with the sounds of each other’s breaths and the calls of the chickadees.

Sitting on top of him, I turned around every minute or so, hoping to find Jerry coming down the path. I wasn’t about to let the man go, but I had no idea what to do with him.

After I’d turned around about ten times, I heard Jerry clomping over the bridge. He jogged past us and looked down. Sweat ran off his red face.

‘Nick,’ Jerry wheezed. ‘Sit him up.’

I stepped off him slowly. By pulling on his arms, I managed to sit him on the ground while I kneeled behind him.

Jerry, still standing, looked at him closely. ‘Young man. What is your name?’

The man in green writhed uncomfortably.

‘That’s fine,’ Jerry said. ‘You don’t have to say anything at all. This is going to be a citizen’s arrest. Do you know why I’m arresting you?’

‘No,’ he said between clenched teeth.

‘Because I suspect you of murdering that young woman at Raven Rock,’ Jerry said. ‘What was her name?’

No answer.

‘It’s not just because you hid and ran,’ Jerry said, his tone turning oddly conversational. ‘Anyone—well, anyone with a rudimentary understanding of the laws of motion could tell you that if that woman died by falling from Raven Rock, she didn’t jump. It couldn’t have been suicide.’

My new grandfather leaned forward and ran a finger over his moustache. He must use the same posture when talking physics with colleagues. ‘I mean if she had jumped, she never would have gotten—oh, say, more than nine or ten feet from Raven Rock. Even if she’d had a running start. But she was almost fifteen feet away.’

He paused and nodded thoughtfully. ‘To be honest, I don’t even think you pushed her. I’d like to get back to my lab to confirm it, but I’d guess that you must have thrown her over your head with two arms. It’s the only way she could have gotten that far, and ended up with that fracture. Just a horrible, horrible—’ Jerry shuddered. ‘Well, anyway. Nick—’

‘But that didn’t happen!’ the man in green suddenly shouted at Jerry. ‘It didn’t happen,’ he repeated more quietly, his neck going slack. Then he hung his head and said, almost in a whisper: ‘Just let me go now. Please.’

Jerry squinted and wiped his brow. ‘Like I said, you don’t have to say anything. You’ll have plenty of time to make your case to the people who matter. Police, prosecutors, cellmates and the like. Don’t waste it on us.’ He turned toward me. ‘Nick, do you have service?’

I got out my phone, took a look, and shook my head.

‘Well, we’ll have to walk him out of the park then. Get him up and let’s go.’

Jerry started taking some deep breaths. I stood carefully, awkwardly keeping my hands around the wrists of the still-seated man in green.

‘I don’t think you have to hold him anymore,’ Jerry said. ‘At this point we could identify him, and it’ll look worse if he tries to escape. Anyway, he knows you could outrun him. You’re fast, Nick. Very fast. I’m impressed.’

I let go and looked down at the man, seeing his face for the first time. He was younger than I’d thought, barely more than a teenager. He looked oddly peaceful for someone who’d just been chased in the woods, tackled, sat on, and citizen’s-arrested for murder.

Perhaps he had already resigned himself to everything that was happening. Perhaps—assuming Jerry was correct—perhaps he had already resigned himself to any consequences of his decision to throw that young woman off of Raven Rock.

I positioned myself on his right side, Jerry got on his left, and with him close between us we turned onto the main path to go back out the way we had come in.

We walked in silence for a mile. As a big reservoir appeared on our right, Jerry began to speak without turning his head.

‘You know, Nick, I didn’t even get to tell you the whole story. As the legend goes, everyone thought it was suicide. But actually it was a lover who killed her, back when this place was mostly Dutch. And because he was never punished, she was never avenged, and so she was doomed to haunt Raven Rock. Something along those lines.’

The man in green cleared his throat and coughed. Then he surprised me by speaking. ‘Must have left the guy for his uncle,’ he said in a hoarse monotone, his eyes on the ground in front of him.

Jerry grunted as if punched. Then I saw him shake his head. ‘What a reason,’ he said.

The reservoir shimmered in the faltering light. ‘What a reason,’ Jerry repeated weakly. ‘Yours, and whatever reason that ancient lover had. Could be you’re right—maybe they’re one and the same.’

Jerry looked carefully at the man in green and continued. ‘But this time the consequences will be different. Because Nick and I were able to figure out what had been done. And by whom. Because we walked to Raven Rock today.’

We trudged on. A robin hobbled alongside us and flew off. ‘We only went because of the ghost story,’ I said.

‘But we didn’t know the whole story until now,’ Jerry said. ‘No one did. Don’t you see? Isn’t that why she’s continued to haunt that horrible rock for hundreds of years? To draw us there today? To make sure the next Lady in White gets some justice?’

I didn’t answer, and nothing more was said. The path got straighter and wider. The air got colder and the shadows got longer. Eventually we made a left and cut through a hay field filled with screeching insects, which took us to the roadside ditch in which we’d parked. We put the man in the back seat of my Subaru.

As I opened the front door, I spotted a big black bird squatting in a high branch near the park’s edge. Squatting and looking at me. Looking at me and opening its beak. Opening its beak and issuing a sound that was nothing like the croak I’d been expecting. A soprano moan, tragic and soothing as the world’s last sunset.

I hopped into the car and drove us away.

 


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