(This story appears in my book, Seasons of Imagination. An earlier version was posted here years ago.)
“Careful, we don’t really need a drink now, do we? Gotta pay more attention.”
Stan stood shivering with delayed reaction as he watched the raging river flow by just below his feet. A week of unusually warm temperatures and pouring rain had melted most of the remaining snow creating a torrent in place of the usual babbling stream.
“They don’t call it ‘mud season’ for nothing,” Stan said out loud as his attention was drawn to the slick spot that had almost tipped him into the rushing water. The bank had eroded into the river taking a good chunk of the path with it. The mud around the cave-in made this collapse doubly dangerous. He’d only just caught his balance in time, his momentum carrying him to the edge of the void.
The reaction of his near fall had shaken him more than he cared to admit so he stood watching the water, waiting until his nerves had settled down. Mount Nodbadigat, which appeared to rise directly out of the river, caught his attention. He had seen this small mountain a thousand times but never noticed its unique shape. It looked like something but he just couldn’t put his finger on it. Trying to puzzle it out he unconsciously took his jacket off and tied it around his waist. Feeling calmer, Stan shrugged his shoulders and turned down the path away from the river and mountain.
The conditions were perfect for an early spring hike. Technically it would still be winter for a few more days, but how often does New Hampshire see 70 degree weather in the middle of March? Stan had played hooky from work to get out and walk off some of his cabin fever. He loved to see the seasons change and it wasn’t often he got a chance to walk in Nodbadigat State Park quite this early. He was glad he did, for it was beautiful, a monochromatic masterpiece built largely of browns and grays. The pines supplied splashes of green, but it was a dark green that tended almost to black in the distance. Many of the trees were beginning to bud and some shoots were sprouting, all of which added spice and accents to the stark and dramatic play of dark trunks and golden sunlight.
A moose’s hoof print was in the middle of the path. The edges were still sharp, so it must have been pretty fresh. Stan looked around to see if he could catch some other sign of the moose itself. He couldn’t see or hear anything: not a dark shadow or a snapping branch, just the column-like rows of trees and the ever-present rush of the river, now a muted roar a couple of dozen yards off the path. The woods were unusually quite since there were no bugs and not many birds. The moose track was the first sign of large life Stan had seen since he had left the trailhead.
Nodbadigat saw few visitors at the height of the summer tourist season or even during the heaviest leaf-peeping in the fall. Stan was sure he had the park to himself and would for days if he cared to stay. Where or why he would stay was beyond him, but he knew if he did, he’d have complete privacy.
A sudden shiver ran down Stan’s spine as he remembered his near fall. Although he always paid lip service to the dangers of hiking alone, the fact that if he ran into a problem or hurt himself he might be on his own for days had just entered his mind with a harsh sense of reality. No matter how warm it was during the day, it would get cold, well below freezing, at night. Every year or two, someone foolish enough not to respect nature turned up dead. Almost exactly a year before they found the body of a hiker washed up against a bridge about five miles downstream from the park. He had been missing for days. The locals blamed The Terror for the man’s death.
The thought of The Terror made Stan smile to himself. Anytime there was an unexpected death of a solitary person in the region it had to be “The Terror”. It didn’t matter the circumstance – it could be an auto accident that was obviously alcohol related, maybe a hunting accident, or a hiker getting lost and dying of exposure or falling into the ice-melt rushing water, they always said that The Terror was responsible. He had lived in the region for almost 20 and could never figure out exactly what “The Terror” was supposed to be. If he dared asked he’d never get a straight answer. All of the locals knew the stories, but never repeated them. It was as if they sucked it in with their mother’s milk and so the stories never needed to be told out loud.
After last year’s drowning, a friend finally had taken pity on Stan and told him a little about the legend. It was rumored that 300 years earlier, as the last of the native Abenaki people were being pushed out by the English settlers, they left a protector to watch over their land. What form this protector actually took was vague, though in one version of the legend it was called The Washerwoman. In the past, parents would warn kids to look out for the washerwoman and some businesses still used “Washerwoman” in their name, but he never knew there was connection between the two until his friend had spelled it out.
The Terror or the Washerwoman, it didn’t matter, Stan would make it out OK by just being extra careful. That’s all it was – the remote area attracted people who liked to experience nature alone and these people sometimes grew careless. Help was slow to arrive and some of the fools came out to the wilderness so unprepared.
Stan cursed himself. In his hurry to get out of the house he didn’t bring any foul weather gear beyond the light jacket now tied around his waist. He didn’t bring a pack or a flashlight. In his cockiness he felt he knew the area well enough not to bring a map or compass let alone his GPS. Cell phones didn’t work in the park so he had left his in the car. He didn’t even have a snack, only a water bottle, now half empty. He never told anyone where he was going and if something happened he knew it might be days before his car was found.
Well, he would just have to be extra careful, that’s all. The trail wasn’t that long. Stan had been hiking since just after 8 and everything was going well, so he figured he should finish the loop and reach his car before 1, 2 at the latest. It was a pretty easy trail and there were no hard climbs.
Stan let his mind reenter the Zen-like state he often found himself in as he hiked, his surroundings filling his consciousness as he walked through a cathedral of huge white pine trunks. On leaving the silence of the natural shrine he could hear the rushing water again. The path wound its way down a prison corridor of white birch bars against inky shadows as it headed closer to the river. A stand of leafless shrubs glowed bright gold out of this darkness on one side of the path while on the other side he could catch a shimmer of light reflecting off of the river. Seeing the water gleaming through the bare trees, Stan was enticed to go the few yards off of the path for a closer look. He wasn’t worried, he would just be a little way off of the trail.
A large sunlit boulder that sat watching over the river invited Stan over to rest for a spell. He figured the outcrop would make a perfect seat with a great view upstream towards Mount Nodbadigat. Once perched on top of the rock he studied the mountain a little more leisurely and realized that it looked almost like a human form on its knees drinking from the river. Maybe not drinking, but doing something, working with something in the water. He squinted and it struck him.
It was washing clothes.
It dawned on him that he wasn’t the first to see the human form in the mountain. He never even thought of where the name “Washerwoman” had come from. Now he knew. The name was everywhere in the region, almost as prevalent as “Nodbadigat”. As he sat and stared, different landmarks on the mountain seemed to resolve themselves into features of a Native American lady doing wash in the river. He was sure it was only his imagination, but the illusion became clearer as time went on.
Stan tried to imagine the washerwoman’s face. At first he felt a little foolish, but then he unselfconsciously strained his eyes hoping the mountainous form would lift its imaginary head so he could see, much the same way he might try to see the face of a woman in a restaurant. He was sure it must be a pretty face. No, it had to be beautiful, just like the mountain. He could imagine the beautiful face looking up at the surrounding park and smiling serenely. Once it glanced outside of the park, though, he imagined that it would flush and turn severe as it saw the encroaching development.
The washerwoman noticed Stan, her eyes flashing angrily, her dark mood descending on him like a thunderstorm.
Stan jumped up, suddenly fully awake. Dusk was rapidly approaching, stars just beginning to peak out. How long had he slept? Using the remaining light, Stan worked his way back to the trail. Once there he wondered which way he should go, wondered if it would it be quicker to continue or go back. He was pretty sure the trail left the river long before the halfway point, yet he had been hiking for quite a while before his break, so he had to be pretty close to half way, maybe well past it. His memory of the path wasn’t exactly clear, so it was possible his estimate was quite a way off. He decided that going back the way he’d come would most likely be safest since he knew what to expect.
The light from the sliver of crescent moon was barely enough to confirm he was still on the path forcing him to slow down and proceed cautiously. He began to shiver as he walked so he reached down to get his jacket.
His jacket was gone. It must have slipped off back on the boulder during his unwanted nap. Turning around Stan tried to make out how far he’d come since getting back on the trail. He wasn’t sure if he could ever find the boulder again so he decided he had to just keep moving forward instead of risking being lost looking for his wayward jacket.
Turning back around he thought he saw a woman in the path, standing, looking at him with an alluring grin, an inviting look in her eye. He nerved himself on, fearing the woman that was silently watching him, watching him and smiling her secret smile. As he approached the woman seemed to slowly dissolve into a moon illuminated tree trunk.
He walked on, vowing to not let his imagination win out. Yet the face he’d seen in his dream appeared behind every tree. Every log became a crouching woman. The more he tried to force the image out of his mind the more he saw it. Not just saw, but before long he heard the crack of something stepping on a branch just a little ways off of the path. He stopped, shivering in the night. The dead leaves continue to rustle for a second and then went silent. Stan strained his eyes and thought he saw something move. Was it a woman trying to entice him off of the path? More likely it was the moose, he thought. The last thing he needed was to run into a bull moose in the middle of the night. When he started again he tried a faster pace to try to shake off the cold.
Noticing the river growing louder Stan broke out into an open area he didn’t remember. The river was obviously close but he couldn’t see it yet. The moon was sinking behind the hills yet a last beam illuminated something in the path in front of him. The figure of the woman was so clear, so real. She was smiling the serene smile he had first seen in his dream. He knew it had to be a tree trunk or stump, so he stared at it and boldly approached. No illusion or trick of his mind would slow him down.
Without warning Stan’s feet flew out from underneath him. Too late he realized that he had reached the washed out spot on the path.
The crushing coldness of the water forced him to gasp, filling his lungs with burning cold water. He brought his head up and looked back in time to see the mountain stand up and the Washerwoman give him a look of satisfied hatred. He screamed the remaining air out of his lungs as he was pulled under one last time.