The first time I saw it was the last time I saw my father.
I was nine years old and Dad had finally agreed to take me hunting with him. Our family owned a mountainside cabin a couple hours upstate and, every fall, he’d drive up for a weekend to try and nab some deer or turkey. He’d never taken me before, he always said I’d be bored or scared of the rifle or grossed out when it came time to clean the kill, but, that last time, I was on a mission to convince him that none of that would happen.
I showed him the book I’d carefully selected to bring up to the deer stand in case I needed something to do, I reminded him that I’d watched him and Uncle Sam shoot cans the summer before when we’d gone camping and been fine, and I told him all about the nature shows I’d been watching on TV, the ones with the lions eating the gazelles.
After a long talk with my mom, who wasn’t much for hunting herself and who wasn’t sure her daughter should be either, he relented and I was told I could go. I was warned, though, that if I didn’t enjoy myself or spent the whole trip complaining, Dad wouldn’t take me again.
They didn’t need to worry; I was determined to prove that I could be the best little hunting buddy he’d ever had.
We left the following Friday afternoon, after I’d gotten out of school. The backseat was full of gear, so I got to sit up front, a rare treat for me. I spent the long drive peppering Dad with questions about what to expect and if he thought we’d actually catch anything and he answered each with his usual patience and good cheer. When there were lulls, he told me about hunting trips he’d taken with Uncle Sam and their dad when they were growing up and even suggested that we might all go together next year if I ended up liking it enough.
It was getting dark when we arrived at the cabin. I’d only been a couple times before and, somehow, I always managed to forget just how isolated it felt. Built halfway up the mountain, deep in a forest of pine and oak trees, the cabin was a simple log structure with no running water or electricity. The quiet that surrounded it was thick, broken only by the rustling of underbrush or bird calls, and I stayed close to Dad as we unloaded in the fast fading daylight.
Inside, Dad gave me the short tour by lamp light to help reacquaint me with the place. Small bedroom with two cots, cramped living room with an old, lumpy couch and a coffee table in front of a fireplace, and a kitchenette where they’d squeezed in a card table and folding chairs. There was a hatch in the floor leading down to a cold cellar, but I wasn’t allowed down there by myself.
The only bathroom came in the form of a rickety outhouse behind the cabin. I was less than thrilled about that, there were webs and permanent lingering smells and it was chilly enough that my teeth chattered, but I dealt with it as stoically as a little girl could.
Complaining meant no more hunting trips and I wasn’t going to let that happen.
It was hard getting to sleep that night. Dad made us go to bed early since we’d be up before dawn, but, while he had almost no trouble drifting off, I could barely get my eyes to stay closed for more than a few seconds at a time. The strangeness of the place made it hard to relax and, every so often, over the squeak of the cots and Dad’s snoring, I was sure I heard something moving around outside the cabin.
A scuffle of leaves, the snap of a twig, and then silence for a short time before it would resume, as if it was circling the cabin.
As if it were looking for something.
I clutched my sleeping bag tightly around myself and kept myself turned pointedly towards the wall. There was a short, hurried skitter of footsteps that sounded like they were coming from just outside and then another brief pause.
And for a long moment, something breathed, slowly and heavily, against the window opposite my cot, right over where my dad was lying.
By the time I could bring myself to turn enough to peek, the sounds outside had stopped and there was nothing staring in at me, just empty darkness. I wasn’t sure if that made me feel better or creeped me out even more.
The only way I managed to get any sleep that night was by repeatedly telling myself that my dad was two feet away from me and he wouldn’t let anything happen to me. It was still a restless and uncomfortable night and, when my dad’s wristwatch started to beep at 5:30 am, I groaned and buried myself as far inside my sleeping bag as I could go.
Dad didn’t let me retreat for long, though, and after a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs cooked in the hearth, we bundled up, gathered up what we would need for a day in a deer stand, and trundled out of the cabin with a couple of flashlights to guide us. Although I was nervous to be outside, I didn’t tell him about what I’d heard while he was asleep; I didn’t want him thinking I was too chicken to go on hunting trips with him.
We had quite the trek ahead of us; the stand was a little over a mile up the mountain by a winding, often uneven footpath and progress was slow. Dad had me take the lead, offering directions from over my shoulder whenever the path diverged, and stayed close behind. It wasn’t unheard of for hunters to come across black bears or wolves while out in the woods and he wanted to make sure that nothing was able to sneak up on us.
In a way, hearing that there were large predators around was almost reassuring, maybe even a little cool. The thing I’d heard outside our window the previous night seemed less scary when I thought that it was just a big animal. We’d been learning about local wildlife in my science class and it would have been neat to tell my teacher I’d actually seen a bear in real life.
I felt even better when the woods around us gradually started to lighten into a misty gray as the sun started its slow climb over the horizon. We switched our flashlights off and put them in my backpack alongside my lap blanket and book and continued on in the predawn haze.
I’d run a little bit ahead of my dad, braver and more excited now that there was a bit more light, and I rounded a curve in the trail at the same time he called for me to slow down and wait for him. I came to an impatient halt, but it quickly turned curious as I realized there was something lying just off of the footpath not far from where I was standing.
It took me a few seconds to realize I was staring at a human arm.
Only the forearm and hand were visible; the rest of the body from the elbow up seemed to be buried underneath the brush, as if someone had tried to unsuccessfully hide it. The part I could see was fish-belly white, slender, and very still. It stuck out sorely against the surrounding ground.
“Dad?” I hadn’t expected the word to come out in a nervous squeak.
“Yeah?” He had caught up by then and must have followed my gaze to the arm, because he quickly followed up with, “Oh, God! Stay here, Faith; do not move, ok?”
I nodded, my hands twisting anxiously around my backpack straps, and he set down his things on the trail next to me. With another reminder not to follow him or touch the rifle, he hurried towards the arm, glancing back only once to make sure I was staying put.
He was only steps away from it when the arm slithered back into the ground and a hatch erupted upwards in front of him.
A creature with the head and torso of a woman, dark haired and nude, hauled itself out of the hole beneath the hatch and lunged at my father with a writhing mass of spindly, spider-like arms.
It was the only time I ever heard Dad scream.
He had tried to stop, tried to turn around, but it sank its long nails into one of his legs and yanked him backwards. He howled with such terror and pain that I finally found my voice and started to scream, too. I was frozen in place, helpless, and I watched that thing envelop my dad, wrapping him in those numerous terrible arms against its breasts, and it squeezed tighter and tighter until he could only gurgle. His feet kicked uselessly against it as he was dragged back towards its hole.
It stared at me from over his shoulder, its milky eyes bright against its dirt streaked face, as they both sank back into the ground.
It was over as quickly and suddenly as it had begun and, once they were gone and the hatch had closed again, there was no sign that either my dad or that thing had ever been there at all.
I was found halfway down the mountain, hysterical and unable to speak, by a couple of hikers some time later. I must have run down there, but I don’t remember it. I just remember so many faces and flashing lights and confusion. Uncle Sam, who lived only a half hour from the cabin, was the first of my family to arrive, followed by my grandparents, and then, a couple hours later, my mom.
They all asked me the same questions. They all got the same answers. None of them knew what to make of my story.
My dad was officially labeled a missing person for the next decade, although it was speculated that he’d been the victim of an animal attack, and I was put into all kinds of programs and therapy for traumatized children. It didn’t stop the nightmares, though. I had them every night, always the same: the monster woman lurching out from under her trapdoor, her dozen spider arms reaching for my dad. I’d hear him scream. I’d wake up shrieking.
Still, no one believed me.
My grandparents died thinking their oldest son had been mauled by a wild animal.
My mom found religion and married a good pastor who suggested I attend a specialized boarding school for “kids like me”, coincidentally far away from his own young children. That never happened, though; Mom couldn’t bear the thought of me being out of her sight. She was afraid I’d disappear, too.
My uncle sold the cabin and never went back to the mountain. He wouldn’t even talk about it.
I spent almost two decades feeling alone, caught on just this side of crazy by a childhood memory that everyone else told me was false, just something my brain made up. I thought it would get better as I got older. I thought there would be fewer and fewer nights spent haunted by a spider-armed woman. I started taking medication, I stopped talking about her in therapy, I moved away from my childhood home. I did everything I could to separate myself from my father’s death. It never quite worked, though.
I still saw her when I closed my eyes.
I still heard Dad’s final scream.
And then, when I was just shy of 30, breast cancer got the best of Mom.
Her husband tried to tell me that I didn’t need to go home for the funeral, it would just be a small affair, she’d understand if I missed it, but I told him to go fuck himself and booked the next plane ticket out. I wasn’t surprised when he nor my step-siblings were waiting for me when I arrived.
It was a struggle going back to my childhood home; not just because of the memories that lingered there, but also because the good pastor attempted to keep me out. He told me my mom’s affairs were in order and there was no reason for me to be there. Again, I told him to go fuck himself.
A week and one expensive phone call on my behalf from a local attorney later, I was granted two hours of uninterrupted access to my mom’s things. I didn’t think I’d need that much time, there wasn’t much I wanted. A few photo albums, maybe my mom’s wedding ring from her marriage to my dad; stuff that would only mean something to me.
I quickly discovered that everything having to do with my parents’ marriage and my childhood had been boxed up and shoved as far into the attic corner as possible. Most of the boxes were layered with undisturbed dust, telling me they’d been there for a long, long time. There was one, however, positioned carefully behind a stack of others, that was creased and worn and entirely clean, as if it had been opened frequently.
I pulled that one out first and tugged it open.
Papers filled the box. At first, I thought they might be medical or legal documents, but a closer look proved me wrong. They were articles, interviews, newspaper clippings, some with highlighting or handwritten notes, all having to do with the mountain.
My fingers trembled as I carefully flipped through the pages.
Mom’s research had been painstakingly thorough, dating back to shortly after my dad had died. She’d photocopied pages out of books, held interviews, dug up old photos; she’d spent years, right up until her cancer took a turn for the worse, tracking down every last mysterious tragedy that had occurred on the mountain in the past forty years.
And they all seemed to lead back to a single, small group.
A cult known as The Gathered had made their home up high in the mountain in the 50s. They were private, isolated, and didn’t like outsiders trying to infringe. Mostly the townspeople in the valley below left them alone, but when their residents started to disappear, they became suspicious and started to look towards The Gathered. After a seven year old girl went missing in 1968, that suspicion turned to open hostility and police made their way up to the commune.
They did find the girl, or pieces of her, along with many of the other missing folks and the entire population of the cult, all dead by their own hand. By the look and smell of things, the authorities were just a few days too late. A note left behind by the self proclaimed leader, Lyman Victors, stated that The Gathered had fulfilled their purpose, they’d opened the doorway, and that “the ungodly ones” would soon walk in their earthly place.
They were written off as a bunch of crazy evangelicals and the commune was burned to the ground. The town below mourned their losses, but tried to put all thought of The Gathered behind them.
It was not such an easy thing, however. People started seeing things up in the woods, dark things that they claimed stalked them, and disappearances became a more regular occurrence. Excuses were made, logical reasons provided, and a strong attempt to brush off what was termed “nonsensical superstition” was made. Anyone who said they’d experienced something up on the mountain was derided as gullible and childish.
It wasn’t a completely successful campaign and sightings still trickled in despite the negative backlash that they received.
The most common report was that hikers or campers had spotted an arm, half buried, alongside various trails.
There was even one from a lumberjack stating that he had witnessed another man being pulled into a well camouflaged hole by “a hideous woman with an unnatural number of elongated arms”. A brief, follow up article that Mom had stapled to the original one said the lumberjack had been committed to an asylum following his delusional statements.
I rocked back on my heels and I held those papers to my chest with a shuddering sigh. I didn’t know what to feel right then, surrounded by years worth of my mother’s research.
What I did know for sure was that my mom had believed me. I could only assume that she was trying to steer me back into a normal life by denying it, that she’d been trying to protect me and give me back some sense of childhood.
Now, though, I knew the truth.
Now, I knew that she’d been listening all along. I knew that I wasn’t crazy.
And now, I knew for certain that there really was something horrible dwelling on that mountain.