“I Will Rise” by Anya J. Davis
When I first announced the Lazarus taxon Project, Anya was one of the first to to volunteer. It wasn’t long before she joined on to this project that we first started following each other on Twitter. Since then, she has become a positive force in my writing and reading tendencies. Her story here, “I Will Rise,” is a jaw dropper. It left me dumbfounded by how good it is! A beautiful story, wonderfully executed. You can follow her @Traumahound23
Her subject was the Jersey Devil and above, is the original sketch of the creature. The legend goes that Mother Leeds, supposedly a witch, had had twelve children, and was pregnant with a thirteenth child in 1735. She claimed that this child would be the Devil. The child was born normal, but suddenly morphed into the stereotypical image that we associate with the creature. Since then it’s been haunting the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.
Whether it’s true or not, the legend is responsible for this fantastic story. Get ready for “I Will Rise” by Anya J. Davis!:
The screams do not wake me this time. They echo on the edge of my consciousness like a distant radio signal, fading in and out. It is the voices, the footsteps, far too close to the canvas, that draw me back. I roll onto my side and reach out instinctively. For one blissful moment, everything is calm. For a split second, as I lie cosseted in my sleeping bag, I am swaddled in denial, cocooned in a dreamlike world from the past.
But there is nothing to touch, nothing to hold on to. As my hand falls on the cold, rough groundsheet, images flash through my mind, a montage that makes my heart contract and the familiar dread wash over me. Every day for two years, I have endured this. One brief moment of contentment, before I am dragged to the edge of the void.
This time, I do not cry. I open my eyes and struggle out of my sleeping bag. Grabbing my torch, I crawl towards the tent flap. I fumble with the zipper, cursing my incompetence before eventually managing to slide it upwards, and I scramble out. The chilly night air makes me gasp as it hits my lungs. Autumn is staking its claim on the forest, creeping in through the trees under the cover of darkness.
Somewhere, beyond the burning embers of one of the campfires, there is movement and a murmur of voices. I switch on my torch and walk towards the sounds. As I get closer, the beam reveals a concerned man and two teenage boys. They stare at me for a second, as they try to discern the figure behind the light, but their attention is drawn away from me by another distant, unearthly scream.
‘Did you hear that?’ The youngest boy’s eyes are wide, his body poised ready to run, although whether towards or away from the sound, it is hard to tell.
‘You know what that is? It’s…it’s…’ Breathless, he stumbles over his words. I do not wait for him to finish his sentence. I step past him and shine my torch towards the treeline before replying.
‘It’s the Jersey Devil. I know’.
I’d heard the screams before, here in the darkness of Wharton State Forest, ten years ago, almost to the day. They had haunted me since then, not because they scared me, but because hearing them had been a sign that we were close, so close. We came no closer after that. The noise that had initially been a source of so much excitement became a symbol of our failure, of my frustration at the fruitlessness of our search.
It was the searching that had brought us together, Simon and I. We continued searching throughout our relationship, sometimes together, although as the years went by, more frequently alone.
Looking back, of course, it should have been obvious that the passion we shared for cryptozoology wasn’t the same at all. I was searching for proof that there was still something magical in this world,something that hadn’t been corrupted and ripped apart. Simon’s obsession was examining the evidence with the sole intention of proving that no such mysteries remained. We were both searching but we were searching for different things.
At the time though, our paths led us to the same destinations. We wandered the shores of Loch Ness, watching the waters for signs of the elusive monster, and we clambered to the top of Cornwall’s granite tors, scanning the wild moorland in hope of a glimpse of the Beast of Bodmin. We pored over books and newspaper reports of sightings of creatures around the world, and had heated debates about the latest theories. Our fieriest disputes, however, were reserved for the times when we discussed the object of my personal cryptozoological addiction, my beloved Jersey Devil.
Simon was adamant about the matter. The Jersey Devil did not exist. It was nothing but the protagonist of cautionary tales propagated by parents keen to ensure that their little ones did not venture into the vast Pine Barrens alone. Its non-existence was indisputable fact and, as far as he was concerned, the case was closed. And yet, as the ultimate declaration of his love, on the morning
of our wedding, he revealed his gift to me. A honeymoon in New Jersey, hunting the Jersey Devil.
The romance of the trip was punctuated by argument after argument as we trekked through the forest each day. But on our final night, when we both woke with a start to hear the legendary screams for ourselves, something changed. We exchanged barely two words on the seven hour flight back to England and the Jersey Devil was never mentioned again.
But I never let go of my Devil. It was my constant companion, my secret love. And now, I am back in the Pine Barrens continuing my search alone.
This time, I take the screams as a different sign. A sign that I am on the right track, on the path to some kind of closure. We stand, the four of us, listening, peering into the darkness, but no further sounds emanate from within the trees. Five or ten minutes pass and I return to the warmth of my sleeping bag, although fear of staring into the abyss again prevents me from drifting off.
By 9 A.M, I am already on the trail, the packed sand crunching beneath my well-worn hiking boots. Rays of sunlight fight to break their way through the shade of the pines and a soft breeze causes the leaves to whisper as it caresses them.
Whispering. I had heard so much whispering in the past two years. Whispering in the street, whispering in the aisles of the supermarket, whispering at the Doctor’s surgery, whispering at the bus stop. At first, it was low and secretive, packaged together with pitying looks and wavering smiles. But as the days and weeks went by, it became louder, more pointed, more accusatory.
‘She must have known. How could she not have known? I would have known, wouldn’t you?’
But I hadn’t known. I hadn’t known a thing.
I watched in horror as the grim-faced officer pushed Simon’s head down to guide him into the back of the car. I stared at the television screen in disbelief, curled up under a blanket on my sister’s couch, as they tore our home up, piece by piece. Even when the proof, the indisputable proof, was revealed, I still did not know anything. A kitchen knife, a blood-stained shirt. The tiniest fragments of a black evening dress, an azure blue top and a pink angora sweater. Stashed away under a loose floorboard in the guest bedroom, they confirmed the facts and yet left so much unresolved.
I did not know until I saw him standing in the dock, his pleading, apologetic eyes gazing into mine. Suddenly, I saw it all, the deception, cowardice and lies, and I fled from him, whoever he was, whoever he had become or had always been. I fled from the packed courtroom, from the prying eyes and the incessant whispering.
The whispering of the pine trees, though, is soothing, free from judgement, lulling me as I trek along the snaking path. I move on, a stillness within me, something strong and serene.
It is a stillness so different from the unnatural calm that overcame me when the news arrived from the prison. I wasn’t shocked. It had come as no surprise. He could never have survived life behind those Victorian granite walls and so he had found a rapid solution, a permanent way out.
I grieved, but more for everyone who he had destroyed than for him. I grieved for someone I had lost so many years ago, for a man who had never existed. I grieved in private, wearing a mask of cold, hard stone whenever I left my new and sparsely-furnished rented flat, wary that any sign of emotion would be taken as a sign of guilt. And I tried, minute by minute, hour by hour, to find the strength to reconstruct my life.
I couldn’t escape the whispering though, or the stares that followed me everywhere I went. I moved away, I changed my name, I dyed my hair, but the past still found me, blocking me at every turn.
And so, I used the last of my savings to come in search of the only thing I still had faith in. I came back to the Pine Barrens to seek solace from my Jersey Devil, in the midst of the whispering trees.
I leave the main path and make my way deeper into the forest, keen to avoid any other hikers who are trudging along the trail. I crave peace, the absence of gossiping, chattering voices. I stride further and further onward, until my muscles burn and my feet feel like I have walked over hot coals. Eventually, I reach a clearing and sit for a moment on the trunk of a fallen tree, savouring the tranquility, before removing my boots and massaging my weary calves.
Just to my left, there is a rustling of foliage, a scuffling. I expect a deer or another hiker to appear, but nothing does. Curious, I put my boots on again, hurriedly lacing them while trying not to make a noise. I pick up my backpack and move into the forest as stealthily as I can, searching for the source of the sound. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see something. A dark shape, a strange shape, a shape taller than any man, moving between the pines. My heart feels like it’s slamming against my rib cage as I try to make sense of what I have witnessed.
And then it emerges from behind the mottled, moss-covered trunk of a nearby tree and takes a tentative step towards me. I am frozen to the spot, my limbs no longer my own, and a rush of fear makes me dizzy. It stands in front of me, its vermilion eyes glinting, its antlers majestic, and I hear the crackling of leather as it unfurls and then closes its wings. Transfixed by the creature, I am overwhelmed and all my mind can do is to repeat the same three words over and over again.
You are beautiful. You are beautiful. You are beautiful.
And then he is gone, slipping away into the forest, and I am left alone, lost and so alone. Hours seem to pass as I stand here, although it is only a matter of seconds. I fight the urge to follow him and return instead to my makeshift seat in the clearing, looking over my shoulder every few steps to check that he is no longer there.
I sit, trembling, wondering what to do next, shock and exhilaration clouding my mind. Suddenly, the fog clears and all I can see is the creature’s eyes staring into mine. And I know, I know for certain, this is no monster, no demon, no child of Satan. The legends and whispered tales that have circulated for centuries are wrong. I know, for all I saw in those eyes was fear. And I know that my beautiful Jersey Devil and I are kin.
And I know, I know for certain now, that unlike my Jersey Devil, I will hide away no more. Tomorrow, I will return to my home town. Tomorrow, I will not flee from the gossip and the whispering. Tomorrow, when I look in the mirror, I will see something beautiful, not a monster tainted by the past.
Tomorrow when I will reveal my wings, I will soar above them all.