The Pale Man in the Trees

📅 Published on March 3, 2022

“The Pale Man in the Trees”

Written by Hank Belbin
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 8.33/10. From 3 votes.
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Part I

I have never been a superstitious man, and can honestly say that I do not believe in vampires, ghouls, demons, or anything else that those youngsters with their vivid imaginations and smartphones like to dream up. But there is one thing that happened a very long time ago that still haunts me to this day. I do not know whether I dreamt the whole thing or not, and it has plagued me for seventy long years. Memories are a funny thing, and I admit they are subject to mythologizing. As we grow old, our childhood recollections betray us. They blur and fade and often all we are left with are these fragmented shards of the original events. But this memory is as clear as the morning sun to me. What I am about to tell you, I have never told anyone before. It is up to whoever reads this whether you believe me or not. Every time I close my eyes, I see his horrifying visage clearer and clearer, looming up out of the depths of my mind like some grotesque phantom. His pale face perched there in the gloom of that forest still sends icy shivers down my neck. I am an old man now and probably only have a few more years left here. The eternal darkness of the afterlife is all that awaits me and I think it would be some form of sin to leave this earth without at least telling people what I saw and what I did.

It all happened in Dartmoor, England. It was 1948. I was a young lad then—ten years old. I grew up in a small town called Princetown. It was the only town right in the center of over three hundred square miles of nothing but wild, open moorlands and deep river valleys. Dartmoor was always an eerie and isolated place. I knew this even when I was a boy. It was a place where the secrets of nature were still unknown to the residents and everything beyond the town seemed to be shrouded in a kind of permanent mist. Generations of our family had lived and died right there in Princetown, most of them never even leaving the county lines. And the last of our family line was only me, my mother, younger brother, and father living in a small white rundown cottage about four miles down from Princetown. Let me tell you, Dartmoor did not look like it does now. Back then, it was even more rugged and barren.

There were few paved roads and most houses in the town were nothing more than bleak moldering terrace houses squatting there in the perpetual fog. Slates roofs and old masonry walls with small square windows on each face. Rows of them sheltering quiet hard-working families who’d huddle around their wood stoves together at night. During the day, curtains would twitch and you could sometimes catch glimpses of the solitary hermits who’d been living there for decades.

The town only really existed because of the prison that was built up there on the damp rolling moors some time back in the 17th century. And even then, the prison itself was ironically only built there because it would have been harder for the prisoners to escape. Princetown was like some lonely bastion or frontier town set up high in the hills. Most of Dartmoor around it was deep pine woods and marshland, long dark places filled with deer and other things that crept around nervously in the trees. This was before pylons carved their way across the lands and those great metal eagles were seldom seen in the skies. Before most of the forests were cut down by the forestry commission, there was a lot of room for secrets. One of them I met.

My dad was a prison warden at HMP Dartmoor. He would work fifteen-hour shifts and I rarely saw him if I’m honest. So for the majority of my childhood, it was just me and my mother. She worked at The Plume of Feathers pub there in Princetown. She was a barmaid and every night she would put me to sleep at seven before heading off to work. I spent a lot of time on my own, and as a result, had to entertain myself. I would often play with my little wooden trucks down in the meadows at the back of our house. And when both parents were working, I’d stay up by candlelight and read dictionaries and encyclopedias. I was quite a dull kid if I’m being honest. If my wife were still alive now, she would tell you I have never had an imagination and am one of the least creative people you would ever meet.

Anyway, I’d just turned ten and was getting used to the idea of being an only child, but then Alfie was born. Little Alfie. He was such a sweet baby. One day my mother came into my bedroom and sat me on the bed. She took my hand told me I would have a baby brother soon. I hugged her and she told me nothing would change and I would still be her eldest son.

At first, I was excited at the prospect of having someone to play with and someone to look after. But after he was born, things changed. I couldn’t help but notice how much they doted on him. It felt like I was unceremoniously pushed aside. It began to burn inside me. That idle neglection soon gave way to jealousy. I didn’t know why but I started to dislike Alfie. Whenever he would giggle and kick his little legs, I would roll my eyes and leave the room. Not that my mum or my dad would notice me leave. They were too enamored with how cute Alfie was to take interest in me anyway.

To this day, I do not know why I let it happen. The logical reason would’ve been a fit of deep jealousy, but I know that’s not what I was thinking at the time. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t really thinking at all.

It was early evening. A sultry hot evening in July. I was giving my mother a hand with bathing Alfie. I would pass her the soap and such as she gently bathed and scrubbed giggling little Alfie. His head was half-submerged in the water and he looked up at me and her and smiled. He had bright blue eyes and wispy blonde hair. A cheeky rounded face framed his fat little grin. Babies have spent most of their lives in liquid so it was no surprise why he was so happy and comfortable bobbing there in the warm soapy water. He must have thought he was back in our mum’s womb all over again. I didn’t know why his smile bothered me so much. Maybe I saw it as a smirk and that he knew what he was doing? I thought he was mocking me. At one point, my mother mentioned that she had to get ready for work. She stood up and asked me to hold onto Alfie for a few minutes while she brushed her hair. So I did.

I put my arm down and held the back of his head gently. His piercing aqua blue eyes looked right into me. He waved his arms excitedly and chuckled, spewing water from his mouth as he did. He was such a sweet baby. It was then that I decided I needed to get a towel to dry him off. My mother didn’t have long before she had to leave for work and we had to dry him down before putting him to bed. So I sat him upright in the bath and left the room. Then, without thinking, I went and sat on the end of my bed… and waited. I don’t know why I did that.

A few minutes later I heard my mother’s screaming echo down the hallway. This agonizing weeping that made me shudder.

“No!” she bellowed. “Alfie! Oh God, no!” she screamed that over and over.

She then burst into my room holding Alfie. He was no longer giggling. His pale lifeless body hung from her grip like he was a wet towel.

“What did you do?” she screeched at me. “What did you do?”

I couldn’t say anything. There was a thick squelching lump in my throat stopping me from talking and I couldn’t even look at her. My skin tingled and I felt sick. All I was thinking was, “Liam, why did you do that? Why did you let him drown?” My mum cried and sobbed. She hugged his body tight to hers, tears streaming down her red face. She then closed her eyes and went quiet. And so did I.

It was worse when my dad came back. The Police and the Ambulance came with him. Alfie was pronounced dead at the scene. The Police interrogated me while my mum sobbed into my dad’s arms in the background. The detective asked what I did and I could only reply, “I went to get a towel for him. I’m sorry…”

When the Police left, my dad beat me. I didn’t even try stopping him. I knew I deserved it. That night destroyed my family. A month later my father left us. He didn’t say anything to me before he did.

Part II

All of that happened six years before I met the thing in the trees. The year was 1954. After Alfie died and my father had left, it was just me and my mother in that lonely decaying cottage together. My mum had fallen into the bottle and only acknowledged me when she needed me to do the chores or fetch her more booze. I’d noticed, in that time, she was staying late after her shifts, seeing men; and she had begun to look ill. Her skin was sickly and sallow and her eyes were always grey and sunken. My mother was always a pretty woman and it was hard to watch her slow descent, knowing I’d caused it all.

It was late one night in January and I was just about to go to bed when I heard the familiar slurring demands echoing from down the hall after me.

“Boy,” she crowed. Since Alife’s death, she refused to call me by my Christian name. “Go to the general store annnd… get meee the biiig bottle of brandy they haveee. If you leave nowww… you’ll still maaake it.”

I had no choice but to oblige. If I didn’t get her what she asked for, then she would’ve no doubt thrown me out onto the damp squalid streets. I don’t need to tell you how well a boy of sixteen would’ve fared back then. So, I rose from my bed, changed into my winter gear and put on my blue parka coat that I had outgrown two years previously.

I came into what was our living room and she was there, lying across the only sofa in a decrepit heap of drunkenness; clumps of mold accumulating in the corners of the room around her. The radio crackled in the background, playing some old-timey tune that I can’t recall now.

From the crumpled sofa, she tossed me some tattered notes and told me to hurry up. She was already half-asleep at this point so I was unsure why she needed any more booze.

I picked it up all the same and I left.

I shut the door behind me and headed out into the freezing night. It was bitterly cold and my breaths came out in thick white plumes that rose up and vanished into the vacuous black sky. I stood there on our porch—the dull amber lamp above twitching nervously—and I thought briefly about what I should do. It was a four-mile walk to Princetown if I followed the main road, but a two-mile walk if I took a shortcut through the forest that ran adjacent to it.

I don’t know why I decided to cut through the forest that night. I guess, in my mind, I just wanted to get it over with so I could go to sleep sooner. I was already employed at Plymouth docks as a labourer and had to cycle ten miles to the yard every day. Walking eight miles at almost ten o’clock at night was not the type of rest I needed. So I went with the latter. After all, I had played in that forest when I was ten years old. I had walked through it during the day multiple times and I guess I felt pretty confident that I could navigate it just as competently in the dead of night. With a plan in mind, I set off and headed for the woods.

I could barely see it in the distance. But, I knew it was there. I knew you could get to Princetown quicker from our house by way of that thin and muddy pathway that cut across a field and eventually a part of the pine forest called Wistman’s Wood. But it would be much harder at night.

Foolishly, that was what I’d decided to do.

It was a gloomy copse of stunted moss-covered pedunculate Oak trees shrouding the epiphytic undergrowth and boggy rock-strewn floor. After a short walk down the muddy path, I came to it. The stretch of woods was supposedly haunted. A few centuries back there were rumors of witch trials in there. Pagans, Celtic shamans, and other heretics used to flock and conduct ceremonies at night when the moon was swollen and gibbous. People and farm animals alike had gone missing over the years and if you go there today you can still see the strange archaic runes carved into the lichen-covered boulders that sit scattered in the gnarled and ancient Oakwood forest. But that wasn’t why people today still say it is haunted. There was something else in there. Of course, at the time, I had heard of the old folktale of the thing in the trees. But I took no notice of it. The aspects of the story seemed just so juvenile to me that I dismissed the whole thing as some old camper’s tale told around the bonfire to warm their cockles.

With a wry shrug of the shoulders, I headed into the trees. The sooner I got through it, the sooner I could get back. The trees started low to the ground on the outskirts. I had to duck under a few of the branches to make any kind of headway. It was a dark night anyway, but once I stepped into the woods, I realized just how dark things could get. I could barely see five feet in front of my face; resigning myself instead to feeling and pushing through the damp mossy branches that scraped across my cheeks. It must have been about forty minutes when I made it through the fabled Wistman’s Wood and then into the deep brooding pine forest behind it.

At this point, I began to feel scared. The walk was taking too long. I’d begun to lose my sense of direction. The trees were tall and looming above me and everything was deathly silent in there. Not even the owls were howling. It was as if all the woodland critters were too terrified to make their presence known. But that wasn’t what was scaring me. Instead, it felt like there was… something watching me. I didn’t know how to explain it but I felt this hungry hot stare on my back. But every time I turned to try and see what it was, there was nothing there. Just the rows of silent trees. An impenetrable wall of black seemed to surround me and creep in closer when I wasn’t looking.

It must’ve been another hour when I finally realized I didn’t know which direction I was heading in anymore. I tried to spot the faint amber lights of Princetown glowing in the distance, but I couldn’t see a thing. I didn’t hear anything either. Just the same unrelenting heaving darkness of the never-ending forest. Still, there was this… presence near me. It was like a shadow was walking too close behind me.

When I’d passed the two-hour mark was when I began to fear for my life. I quietly wondered whether I’d ever find my way out again. If I didn’t, would my mother even notice? Would anyone come looking for me?

In a panic, I called out, “Hello? Is anyone there? I’m lost…”

Nothing. Not a sound. The branches on the trees weren’t even swaying. Everything was deathly still and unnervingly silent. I was truly lost and alone. I continued walking for what felt like days. My stomach was rumbling and my legs began to ache with the constant timid stepping over the rocks and fallen trees.

At one point, I leant against a tree and buried my head in my forearm, thinking hard about what I should do. I’d called out a few more times but still heard nothing back. The nighttime air was freezing my joints and making my exposed skin go numb. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine myself in front of a warming fire, or wrapped up back in my bedsheets. Then, as I dreamed of roaring stove fires and comfy sofas, I heard something come from behind me.

“Liiiiaaaaam… Princetown is this way….,” it whispered softly.

My eyes bulged open and I darted around to face it. Numbing fear gripped me. But when I peered back into the darkness, there was nothing.

“Hello? Is someone there?” I asked quietly, trying not to sound scared. “Was the tale true after all?” I thought.

Then, coming from my right side now, “You have to hurry. Or mummy will throw you awaaaaay…”

The voice sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. It was hoarse and guttural but also had a bizarre echoing timbre to it.

“Hello?” I shouted this time, “Please! I’m lost and I’m cold.”

“Not as cold as Alfieeeeee,” the strange metallic voice chuckled from between the branches.

I shuddered and looked around. My first thought was, “How the hell do they know about my baby brother?”

“Who’s that out there?” I begged. My voice was trembling.

Then I heard something emanating through the trees that made my skin run cold. Slowly, rising out of the ruddy darkness of the forest, I heard a baby crying. A feeble wailing that only babies can do. It cried and cried, the noise of it all rising into a crescendo around me. I looked up and tried to pinpoint where exactly the sound was coming from, but it was too hard to tell.

“Please, sir! I need to get out of here,” I said.

After a few moments of the baby crying, I heard that horrible alien voice once more. “Follow the baby, and you will get out…”

So I did. The noise of the cry distilled and focused in one direction. I started chasing after it. As I climbed over the dead decaying branches and through the cold leaves, I thought of Alfie again. “How did this person know about Alfie?” I wondered.

As I moved deeper into the woods, I began to hear another sound. It was unmistakable to me. A sound impossible to forget. I heard my mother’s agonizing wails the night Alfie died. That sound was etched into my mind forever, and I heard it all over again in the center of the long dark woods that I couldn’t escape.

Without warning, I began to howl. The noises of baby Alfie crying and my mother keening assailed my ears and made me break down.

“Mum! I’m sorry. I’m sorry!” I shouted in reply. But they continued crying and sobbing in the blackness. “Please, mum! I didn’t mean to! I’m sorry!”

They didn’t stop. So I wiped the tears from my blistered face and continued walking. I didn’t know what direction I was heading in, but at that point, it didn’t seem to matter anymore.

Part III

For what felt like days, I continued wandering around in the darkness. All of it an endlessly repeating cycle of tree trunks and gulches, hills and moss-covered stones. I was so sick of it all. I was so tired that I couldn’t even lift my head to glance forward at my plight. Instead, just this relentless stream of moss and puddles drifted below my feet. The was air raw and wretched against my skin. The icy clasp of death seemed to be clawing its way under my coat now. I was beyond cold.

The ghosts of my past’s crying had subsided. I only heard them faintly in the distance now.

I continued walking. I walked and walked. Then, my feet began to slow and drag across the primal earth. I began to stumble. Soon, I wasn’t walking anywhere. I remember this part clearest of all. I then conceded defeat and sat down at the base of a giant ancient pine tree and just stared off into the inky darkness, almost accepting my fate now. I sighed and leaned back. The bark of the tree scraped against my legs and back, and the earth below me was much colder than the air, but I didn’t care anymore. I thought I was going to die in there. In a strange and morbid kind of way, I felt like I’d deserved it. The moldering earth decaying and absorbing me until not even my bones remained. The memory of what I’d done no more.

The night drew on and I felt my extremities slowly fade into absence. The frost and air made everything retreat into numbness and with the chilling embrace of the night, my young mind began to leave me too. I couldn’t think straight. I sat there in the dirt and stared ahead into the abyss of the primordial forest. All those trees, bearing down upon me, reaching out to embrace me as one of their own.

And there, just as I began lulling in and out of consciousness, I saw something ahead of me. Against the flat darkness, an almost imperceptible shape lingered. I squinted at first, unsure of what I was looking at. Then I blinked slowly and tried to focus on it. The frost on my eyelashes stung like bee stings and everything in my body was shutting down, but still, I saw something there.

It was a tall and pale figure there amidst the knee-high grass and lichens. It was looking right at me, but it didn’t look with eyes. I felt its gaze. It took on the form of a person. But it couldn’t have been. It was too tall—at least seven feet. It was wearing a long dark robe—like a Jesuit priest— draped over its emaciated body. It was hard to tell, but I thought I saw four arms crawling and scrabbling around under its shroud. The thing had no face. Instead, just this rounded surface, like the shell of a rotten egg. Around the jowls of the face was drooping pallid skin that looked like drained chicken fillets. There were no eyes, no features., except a thin black slit running down the center of its skull.

I was gripped in a kind of dull paralysis and my heart thundered in my ribcage. I stared forward at it poised against the bracken and pine needles. As I look back now, I believe it was Death himself that I met that night. I believe he came to take me, but it was not my time, it seemed. I was so enervated of strength that I could not hold my eyes open any longer. Everything faded.

The thing came towards me, looming up out of the lightlessness of this horrible night. It didn’t walk. It had no feet. It came gliding at me, hovering just off the ground. I tried to scream but nothing came out. I couldn’t move anything. Unconscious fear became an unassailable reality. As it drew nearer I realized my body was shutting down. Then I sunk down into something abyssal. I felt the world falling away from me. In the deepest pit of blackness I had only a vague awareness of my utter terror.

But death never came for me. Something else did.

Part IV

Sometime later, I awoke in a daze and felt curiously warm somehow. My thoughts were fuzzy and I couldn’t focus properly. Surely, slowly, my eyes blinked open for the first time in a long time and I looked around. It wasn’t the forest anymore. I was somewhere else now. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw that I was on my back, laying on a sofa of sorts. There was a thick sheep’s wool blanket draped over me and I couldn’t move any of my arms or legs. I was inside now. The room I was in was glowing with warmth. Candles twinkled on the window sills and the floor was made from this thick Oak that seemed to absorb the light from them. In the corner of the room, crackling away, was a roaring stove fire. The flames rolled and danced over the logs in the peripheries of my sight. It was all a miasma of heat and scents. It smelt like matches and copper in there.

I tried to rise from the bed but stopped myself when I noticed a huge figure sitting on a stool by the fire before me. “Is that him? The thing in the trees?” I thought. The shadow of its bulk cast across the floor towards me. Fear gripped me once more and I didn’t make a sound that would alert it to my awakeness. I laid there, looking across at it, unmoving, unsure of what to do. It had those same dark robes that draped over its immense stature. The thing looked like a grizzly bear hunched over in a duvet. It had its back to me, and at regular intervals I observed the thick tobacco-smelling wafts rise from its hood.

“No need to pretend,” the figure said in a warm mellow voice. “I know you’re with us now.”

“Where am I?” I asked after a long hushed pause.

“Where you always wanted to be.”

“Where’s that?”

It never looked at me. It just stared into the flames of the wood burner and sucked away sullenly on its pipe. After a drawn-out silence, it craned ever so slightly towards me and said,  “You have carried something for a long time. What is it?”

I saw no point in lying anymore. I knew what he was talking about. If it were the same thing from between the trees—and I believe it was— then he already knew about Alfie, about what I did. So, after a teary gulp, I spoke. “I did something very bad,” I muttered.

“What?” It asked with a shrewd air of wisdom.

I shook my head and stared into the threnody of flames burning up all the wood and coal. “I let my brother drown,” I said. “He was only six months old… I don’t know why I did that. I didn’t dislike him. I actually…”

The thing cocked its head to the right and blew out a big cloud of acrid smoke. “How?”

“… He was in the bath. I was supposed to be keeping an eye on him, but…”

“And what did you do?”

I bite my tongue hard before speaking, then, “I left the bathroom. I left him,”  I said as I felt my voice grow tight.

“Then what?”

I let him drown…”

It was hard to tell but it looked like the thing sat in front of the fire had nodded in acknowledgment.

“What do you feel?” it said earnestly.

My skin tingled and I felt my face well up with tears. They poured out like two scarring waterfalls from my eyes. “I just want my brother back…”

“Even if that means that you die?”

“Yes. I don’t care. I just want him back. I want to tell him I’m sorry. I never wanted him gone. I just…”


“… I didn’t want to be overlooked…”

Then there was quiet in the room. The fire rolled away and everything was silent once more.

The thing by the fire bowed its head. “You look very tired, little boy. You should close your eyes,” it said.

After a long pause, I asked, “Who are you?”

“… We knew each other once. Although we never truly got to know each other. Close your eyes. Sleep.”

I’d wanted to ask him more, but as soon as he said that sentence, it was like being given a warm cup of milk. My eyes drooped and my body relaxed. My eyes shut and I felt the most comfortable I have ever been. I soon fell into a deep and dreamless sleep. Thoughts and dreams rolled over me like waves on an eternal beach.

Part V

I woke up with sunlight in my eyes, slanting its way through the trees and onto my face. As I opened them slowly, its blinding glare filtered into my vision and I found myself awake once more. My head pounded and I felt vaguely nauseous, but I was alive. I rubbed my furrowed brows in confusion and tried to coax the sleep from my eyes. When I leaned up wearily and looked around, I saw that I was still in the dreaded forest. But it was different now. It was the morning. My sight adjusted to the bitter sunrays and I could see the edge of the forest. In fact, I was a mere ten feet away from the main road that led into Princetown. The relief shot through me and I almost started crying again. More than anything, I was just glad to see the end and be free of the awful trees.

Frost sparkled on all the grass and the brisk morning breeze was cool and refreshing against my skin. I got up, dusted the dried and grey mud off myself and then headed into town. My thoughts were racing. “Did I imagine all of that? Or did that thing bring me to the edge of the forest?”

I imagined every conceivable possibility on that walk back into Princetown.

When I made it into town, I could see a small congregation of people standing around the town hall. They all looked worried and concerned as they glanced across at each other. Some of them had the collars of their coats rolled up to shield against the cold winds. One of them turned and spotted me, then said, “He’s here!”

All of them turned to face me and then came rushing towards me. My mother was there with them. She burst into tears when she saw me. She hugged me and said she was sorry. I said I was sorry too.

After that, they took me to Plymouth hospital to make sure I was all right. And I was, yet I didn’t know how exactly.

To this day, I cannot say for certain just what happened. All I know is I felt it. I felt like I had met Death that night in the dim forest. And if you feel it, then it must be real. That’s all I have to say about that. You may make up your own mind whether I’m just a bored old boy trying to pull a fast one on everyone, or if I really did meet Death that night long ago.

Anyway, we’ll leave it there. I’m tired now and I am waiting for my carer to bring me my afternoon hot chocolate before I have my nap. I can’t stay up late anymore like all them youngsters. You’ll understand one day when you’re my age.

You know, as I have written this more and more has come back to me. I don’t think dying is such a bad thing after all. As I become more senile and infirmity creeps ever closer, I must confess I am sad to see all of this end, but I’m also optimistic for what lies on the other side of death. I hope Alfie is there. I hope he forgives me.

Rating: 8.33/10. From 3 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Hank Belbin
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Hank Belbin

Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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