The haunting of winter trees. That’s what I remember, that’s the malignant image that steals my serenity each time I walk the woods in Knox County when the leaves have given way to bare bark. It has been over three years since I began to see the trees as sinister. I hardly ever talk about it but it is always on my mind.
It began in November 2010 when word came out that something terrible happened in nearby Apple Valley. We learned from Facebook posts and the local newspaper that an “unusual amount of blood” was seen inside a house. The next night, Kenyon College was in lockdown because a truck belonging to a missing woman was found in a parking lot of the Kokosing Gap Trail.
Details were sketchy. But it was clear that the sheriff’s office knew more than they were telling, concerned that someone had left a bloody path and was desperate to cover tracks. Then we heard that two women, best friends, and two children, a young teenage daughter and an 11-year-old son of one of the women, were missing. The local Dairy Queen’s manager, who was checking on the mother who didn’t show up for work, spied the unusual amount of blood through a window in the family’s home.
Vigils were planned. Vigilantes were meeting on their own, convinced that law enforcement was doing nothing. It seemed like weeks had passed but it was only a few days. Helicopters flew over our part of the county, footage from which we would see on Columbus’ evening news.
(The back story is taking more words than I expected when we had so few words to actually say then.)
On Sunday, the local paper reported online that the suspect was in custody, the daughter was alive, but the fate of the others was not known. Of course, the police knew — they had seen the unusual amount of blood — but they didn’t let on much.
Officials announced that a massive search would take place and a Facebook page that had been created to share information asked for volunteers to show up at the local multiplex parking lot the next day.
I don’t know why I chose to be among them but I did. On a misty November morning, I filled out a form and waited for my name to be called as groups were coordinated and locations assigned. We were sent to targeted areas without explanation. My group met on the wooded hill leading toward Gambier on the north side of State Route 229, just west of the stream called Wolf Run that feeds the Kokosing. The property belongs to Kenyon as part of the Brown Family Environmental Center.
Led by two African-American women, trained search volunteers from Columbus, we spread out at arm’s length from one another to comb this tangle of brush and saplings and trees, moldering leaves underfoot, following the knotted Bishop’s Backbone. Our search leader paused at one point and hollered for us to gather. She said, “We’re told to look in the trees. Look up. Look in the logs. Look for hollowed places.”
I remember thinking how odd it all was. A bunch of strangers, who maybe thought they were looking for the two women and son, who maybe were tied up and gagged somewhere in the woods, still alive, and now this group was looking for bodies — because why would a live person be in a tree? And we all wandered off, lost our arm’s-reach distance to one another, left gaps uncovered. I looked for hollows in the trees, poked through logs, but a palpable sense of futility hung in those woods. We turned around and headed down the hill to Wolf Run, lined up along the stream, made our way across. No scraps of fabric, no signs of camp, no plastic bags. I wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or sad. I found myself haunted instead.
Later that day or the next, I can’t remember when, the suspect revealed the location of the dismembered bodies, high up in a hollowed 60′ beech tree in the Kokosing Wildlife Area near Fredericktown, miles away from the woods I walked.
I am haunted by winter trees–beech, birch, oak, pawpaw, maple, walnut, it doesn’t matter.
Matthew Hoffman, murderer of three and rapist/kidnapper of one, filled his house with leaves, three feet deep in the living room, and grocery bags stuffed with leaves ballooning along the bathroom walls. Leaves in the basement. Leaves everywhere. His house was one everyone in Mount Vernon could say they passed at one time or another, perhaps every day. No one knew about the transformation, this turning of the inside out within his house.
Hoffman was obsessed with trees. He climbed them, slept in hammocks strung between them, bagged up leaves from trees not even in his yard. His obsession is eerily poetic, madly allegoric, dangerously mythy. Yet I can’t attach meaning to the stashing of bodies in the hollow of a beech tree. I can’t allow it to be some gesture of ritual, homage to regrowth, giving back to the earth. No, I think he hid them there because he knew they would never be found.
The trees did not collude with him. They gave up their contents. They gave him no shelter. It is time for me to forgive them, to lift that dark veil, haunt no more.