This is a true story. I know that’s cliché to say. In this day and age, claiming something incredible happened without video proof is a surefire way to make certain people won’t believe you. Everyone does it, though, especially in the realm of the scary and the supernatural. Movies like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Strangers are supposedly, “based on true stories.” But when you take a look at the events inspiring them, you’ll find an excessive amount of artistic license has gone into the end product. The result, many times, is that the tale told becomes hardly recognizable from its source material. I guess the writers and directors figure reality isn’t scary enough. The story I’m about to relate happened, though, just the way I’m telling it, no embellishment needed. I wouldn’t lie about that because…
Well, you’ll see.
I grew up in a different world than today. The internet wasn’t commercialized yet, phones were still attached to the wall, and kids played outside on afternoons and weekends. The information age is marvelous, an incredible amount of knowledge available instantaneously at our fingertips. Questions that in my youth would have taken days of research at the library to answer are satisfied in moments with a quick Google search. The issue, I’ve found, is having access to such a font of knowledge has made us lazy. We assume, incorrectly, that we can find anything online. If there’s nothing there, if the search results come up empty, it must either be unimportant or simply not exist. That’s not true. Some things, some very real, very important things, have avoided making the digital leap. Things like Ol’ Mother Cleaver.
My mom and I moved to a new town a couple weeks after my thirteenth birthday. My dad was in the army and eventually mom got tired of pulling up her life and starting over every couple of years. My parents decided to try a “trial separation” and jointly concluded I’d go with mom since dad’s lifestyle wouldn’t be ideal for raising a kid by himself. I didn’t get to have much of an opinion in the matter, so that was that.
My mom wanted to live somewhere we could “put down roots.” She said she was looking for a place that embodied pure Americana: small town living but close enough to a big city that you could catch a flight if the itch to travel caught you. And that’s where we ended up, a little town in Pennsylvania not far from Pittsburgh. I’m not going to say exactly where because, well, then I’d consider myself responsible for anything that might happen to anyone looking to corroborate my story. Just think of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and that will give you a pretty good idea.
It was summer when we arrived, a particularly hot one, and I remember flies the size of gumballs flitting through air that seemed hazy because of the heat. Mom got a job as a secretary for the judge at the town courthouse. She worked long hours and, since I wouldn’t be starting school until the end of August, I was left to my own devices from pretty much sunup to sundown. The little two-bedroom duplex she could afford on her salary, even supplemented with monthly checks from my dad, was cozy but didn’t have air conditioning, minus a few ceiling fans that didn’t do much to cool you off. Accordingly, I spent most of my days wandering around town to take my mind off the heat.
That was how I came to meet Tom and Terry, siblings who for that summer became my best friends in the whole world. They were Irish twins, Terry being my age and Tom slightly older. Tom was gregarious and energetic, Terry more reserved and bookish, but despite their differences they shared curly brown hair, emerald green eyes, and a tight-knit bond. Even though we were on a pretty meager budget, my mom gave me a couple dollars a week in allowance that I would generally blow at the old-fashioned soda shop downtown. I first ran into the brothers at the store’s comic rack and we bonded over the latest issue of “Uncanny X-Men” and chocolate milkshakes. Eventually we realized we only lived a couple blocks apart from each other. From that first meeting on, we were nigh inseparable. Tom and Terry were in a similar situation to me; their mom had died a couple years earlier and their dad worked the night shift at the paper mill just outside town. Most mornings I’d take my old ten-speed over to their house where we’d meet up and head out for the day. The two of them had lived there since they’d been born, so they were able to show me all the interesting things there were for kids to do in town and throughout the surrounding area.
If nothing out of the ordinary had happened that summer, I’d still remember it as clearly as I do now from all the memories I built with Terry and Tom. Every day was an adventure: bike races down Breackneck Hill, cannonballs in the swimming hole out in the east woods, catching fireflies in the twilight gloom, and many others. Looking back now, I recognize the first part of that summer composed the framework to a kind of youthful Eden.
Occasionally we would have sleepovers. The brothers’ house stood on the edge of their neighborhood and they had a large backyard bordered by thick, leafy woods. The oppressive heat thankfully gave a reprieve most days after the sun went down, so some nights we’d build a bonfire and pile sleeping bags into the tent Tom still had from six months in the boy scouts. It was on one of those evenings about two months after I’d moved to town, toasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories, that I was introduced to the legend of Ol’ Mother Cleaver.
“You don’t know about Mum Cleaver?” Tom asked with a grin, firelight reflecting off his teeth.
I shook my head, “What, is she some kind of urban legend? Like ‘The Hook’ or ‘Bloody Mary’ or something?”
“Or something,” Terry murmured.
Tom laughed, “Nah, nothing like those little-kiddy stories. The Cleaves is real.”
“That’s what most urban legends want you to believe. If she’s so real, how come I’ve never heard of her?”
Tom shrugged, “Probably because she’s local. But she’s definitely real. Our dad told us the story about her one time when he got super drunk. A long time ago, there was this lady that lived in a little house out in the woods with her son. Everyone in town knew she was supposed to be a witch, but because they would go to her for love potions and to help deliver babies, they pretty much just ignored it.”
“Really? A witch?”
“Shut up, that’s what my dad said. Anyway, the mayor’s wife was having a baby, but she died giving birth. The mayor said it must have been something the witch did and got everyone in town all worked up. A bunch of people went out to her house and burned it down.”
I rolled my eyes and speared another marshmallow.
“And now the witch’s ghost haunts the town right?”
“No, Mr. Smarty-pants. The witch wasn’t home. My dad figures she must have been pretty upset about the mayor’s wife and was wandering in the woods when the crowd got there. The only one in the house was her son.”
Tom nodded somberly, “My dad said the witch promised she’d have justice for her son’s murder. But since the one mostly responsible was the mayor, she didn’t trust the courts would find him guilty. So, she took the cleaver she used to cut up the ingredients for her potions and went into town. She used a spell to find out who had burned her house and, night by night, snuck into their rooms and hid under their beds. While they were sleeping, she snuck out and used her magic to make her voice sound like their mothers. She confronted them with what they did, then listened to what they said while they were only half awake. If they were honest and admitted to the killing, she gave them a kiss on the forehead and left. But if they lied, she took her cleaver and chopped off their heads.”
I smirked. “That’s pretty unbelievable. They didn’t realize it was the witch killing people? Why didn’t they get another crowd together and burn her at the stake? Why did the witch give them a chance to confess instead of just killing all of them?”
Tom shrugged again, “Look that’s just what my dad told us. Anyway, the rest of the story is once she visited all her son’s killers she disappeared. But, every once in a while, there will be a strange death around town and people will say Ol’ Mother Cleaver must have caught them in a lie.”
Terry spoke up, “Parents around here say if you’re bad and don’t listen then Ol’ Mum will get you. Everyone around here knows about her, mostly because of the rhyme.”
“Rhyme? Like Freddy Krueger?”
“Sort of. I haven’t said it in forever.”
Terry shut his eyes in concentration, trying to remember the words. Then he began to chant in a slow, sing-song voice.
Ol’ Mother Cleaver
You willn’t see her
Hiding beneath your bed.
While you are sleeping
She will be sneaking
Out to cut off your head.
Grinning, Tom joined in.
Bad lil’ boys and girls
Who’re wicked to the world
Best say their prayers at night.
Cause those who steal and lie
Will have a big surprise
When they turn off the light.
Their voices picked up in tempo.
If Mother asks you,
You had best be true
Answering from your bed
Else she will take her
Big, shiny cleaver.
One chop and you’ll be dead!
Abruptly, the rhyme ended, the brothers fell quiet, and for several moments the only sound was the snapping of the logs on the fire.
I cleared my throat, breaking the silence.
“Well. That’s definitely creepy. But I still don’t believe it.”
“You don’t have to,” Tom laughed, “Because if you lie the Cleaves will chop off your head either way!”
“No way!” I shouted, “because if she tried, I’d give her one of these!”
I jumped up and tackled him. We rolled around in the grass, laughing uproariously.
“Uh oh, Sammy-boy! Fighting’s against the rules! Ol’ Mum’s gonna get her cleaver!”
He got the better of me and pinned me down.
“Well,” Terry said thoughtfully from where he sat, undisturbed by the ruckus, “we could take him to the house.”
In an instant, all levity drained from Tom and he stood, facing his brother.
“You serious? Last time we agreed there was no way we would ever go back there!”
Terry shrugged, “I know. But we wouldn’t have to go inside. Just show him where it is.”
“Wait,” I sat up, “I thought the witch’s house burned down.”
“It did,” Terry nodded, “But there’s still a few walls standing where it was. You’d at least know we were telling the truth about that.”
“No way, Terry,” Tom shook his head furiously, “No way.”
It was the fact that the older, take-charge Tom was so obviously terrified that made up my mind.
“All right. I’m in. When are we going? Now?”
“You’re crazy,” Tom whispered.
Terry shook his head, “We’d never find it in the dark. And even if we could you wouldn’t be able to see anything. We’ll go tomorrow.”
“Crazy,” Tom whispered again.
“All right,” I said, “Can’t wait.”
With that, it was obvious that the night’s fun had come to an end. I doused the fire, and we all got into our sleeping bags. Before long I could hear Terry gently snoring from across the tent, but I’m pretty sure Tom was still awake when I finally nodded off.
The next morning, we packed up the camping equipment. Tom was quiet and sullen, but Terry and I agreed that, after I went home for breakfast and to change, I would meet the brothers back at their house. When I unlocked the front door of the duplex and pushed inside, I was surprised to find my mom sitting at the kitchen table on the phone.
“Mom, is everything ok? Why aren’t you at work?”
She smiled at me but seemed a little shaky. “Everything’s fine, honey. I called your dad about some things and we got to talking so I’m going in a little late today. Did you have fun with the boys’?”
I frowned. “Yeah. I’m meeting them again in a little bit. Just home to change.”
“Ok, hun. Sounds good. I’ll tell Dad you said hi.”
I walked down the hall to my room but kept the door cracked so I could try to listen to my mom’s conversation. I couldn’t hear much, but I could tell from her tone that she was agitated. After a couple seconds I decided it was none of my business and shut the door. I got dressed and headed back through the kitchen.
“Bye, Mom. Love you. Tell dad I love him too.”
“Ok, honey,” she nodded absently, “have a good day.”
I picked my bike up from the lawn and headed to meet the brothers, my mom’s conversation rolling around in my head. Terry met me outside.
“Ready to go? You’ll want to leave your bike here. You’d have to walk it most of the way through the woods.” He frowned looking at my face, “Everything ok?”
“Huh? Oh yeah. It was just weird. My mom was late to work and seemed upset. She was talking to my dad oh the phone though so probably not anything I can do about.” I craned my neck to look behind him into the house, “Where’s Tom?”
“He’s still steamed that we’re going to the witch’s house.”
“Really? How come?”
Terry shrugged, “We had a bad experience last time we went there.”
I looked at him, waiting for more, “Aaaaand…?”
“And you’re both crazy for wanting to go to that house.” Tom pushed his way through the screen door onto the stoop, “But there’s no way I’m letting you go alone.”
Terry smiled tightly, “Come on, Sam.”
He walked around to the back yard and into the adjoining woods. We stepped onto an overgrown trail and followed it for a hundred yards or so before it faded completely and we were left walking through what was, as near as I could tell, completely unmarked forest. I followed Terry closely, Tom lagging behind us.
The question still burning in my mind, after ten minutes of walking through the trees I asked again.
“Seriously, why is he so worked up?”
“Well,” Terry turned to make sure Tom wasn’t close enough to hear then lowered his voice, “The truth is, we think the Cleaves killed our mom.”
“What? That’s crazy!”
Terry pushed a low hanging branch out of his path, “Yeah. I know we told you she died a couple years ago. It happened suddenly, the day after the last time we went to the witch’s house. The next morning when my dad came home from work, he found her dead in their room.”
He paused to take a long step across a shallow creek.
“Not long after we found out she’d been cheating on him. One of our neighbors was found dead in his bed too. Both of their heads were chopped off.”
I stumbled in surprise, my foot getting soaked in the creek up to the ankle.
“You have to be messing with me. You’re kidding right?”
“No. It’s true. You can ask other people about it.”
“But the cops must have thought your dad did it?”
Terry nodded, “Of course. But his manager and all the other guys at the mill swore that he’d been there all night. And the doctor put the time of both deaths right in the middle of Dad’s shift.”
I glanced back at Tom. “No way. You’re pulling my leg. Tom was joking about the whole Mum Cleaver thing last night before you suggested going to the house.”
Terry shrugged, “That’s just how he handles things. Laughs it off so he doesn’t have to think too hard about it.”
“What about you? If you really believe Ol’ Mother Cleaver killed your mom, how come you’re so ready to go traipsing around her house?”
Terry’s normally kind eyes grew hard. “My mom wasn’t perfect. But that doesn’t mean she deserved to have her head chopped off. I need to see if the Cleaves is really real. If she is, she owes me. Tom and my dad too.”
I shook my head in wonder. “Why’d you wait two years to go back then?”
“Because I’m scared as hell,” Terry grinned, “And I figured Tom wouldn’t let me go without him, especially if you were going.”
I stopped talking for a few minutes, just processing everything Terry had laid on me. One final question nagged me.
“Ok. Assuming your dad didn’t do it, that still doesn’t explain why you think Ol’ Mother Cleaver killed your mom. Maybe it was just some escaped maniac or something. That would be a stretch but a lot more believable than some ancient witch hiding under the bed.”
Terry nodded. “The last time Tom and I went to the house I took… something. That night, the night she died, my mom woke me up and asked me about it. At least, I thought it was her. I told the truth, said I was sorry. She kissed me on the forehead and left.”
I shivered, “Just like…”
“Yeah. Thing is, we didn’t know this was her house. We really didn’t know anything about Ol’ Mother Cleaver then, just the rhyme. Most people don’t. It wasn’t until later my dad told us the whole story. That’s when we realized what must have happened.”
“And he knows the story because?”
“His great-great-grandmother was the mayor’s wife who died.”
“Just what my dad told us. We’re almost there.”
We walked maybe another fifty yards before Terry pushed through a thick screen of brush. Before us the burned out remains of an old, wooden house stood in a clearing. Only two of the exterior walls were still erect and the roof was collapsed, the bare interior of the house totally exposed to the elements. The two of us stopped, just looking.
“Well here it is,” Tom said coming up behind us, “Do you believe us now, Sam? Can we get the heck out of here, please?”
Seeing the remains of the house, its blackened timbers twisting this way and that like broken fingers, I felt an involuntary shiver creep down my spine.
“Works for me,” I said, “I sure hope you guys know how to find your way back.”
“In a minute,” Terry said before abruptly jogging forward and ducking behind one of the still standing walls of the house.
“Terry!” Tom shouted. He took a step to follow, then stopped, hands clenched at his sides, frustration visible on his face.
“What are you doing?” I called after Terry.
I followed him, but rounding the wall my mouth dropped open, dumbfounded.
“Wha… where did he go?”
With visible effort Tom came to stand beside me.
“There’s a hole over there. You can’t really see but it leads down to the cellar. Come on.”
“You sure?” I asked, “Terry told me about… uh, your mom.”
“I figured. And no, I’m not, but somebody’s got to make sure that idiot doesn’t hurt himself. There’s no light down there.”
Sure enough, not twenty feet from where I stood lay an open hole with a shaky looking ladder leading down it, blocked from sight by some of the fallen roof.
“Terry went down there?”
“What is he doing?”
“Being an idiot.”
Tom shook his head.
“We found this place a few years ago, didn’t have any idea what it was. We came a bunch of times, but it was only our last trip we found the cellar. We poked around and found, of all things, an old, rotted skeleton. Terry took one of the finger bones as a souvenir…”
“And that’s why you think Ol’ Mother Cleaver visited you that night. To get the finger back. But why did she kill your mom?”
Tom shrugged, “Dunno. Maybe since we disturbed her she decided to go back to her old tricks. But the finger was gone the next morning. Come on, I’ll go first.”
He took a breath to settle his nerves then descended the ladder.
“You’re good,” he called back up, “Careful, some of the rungs are a little slippery.”
I cautiously made my way down to the cellar beside Tom and found the light coming from the hole above did little to illuminate the space.
“Here,” Tom said, “Put your hand on my shoulder so we don’t lose each other. I think I can remember how to get to where we found the skeleton.”
I grabbed his shirt and we stepped into the blackness which, within only a few steps, became absolute.
It didn’t take long, maybe only thirty seconds or so, but the time seemed to stretch on for an eternity as Tom carefully felt his way along the earthen wall and I clutched his shoulder. We took one turn, then another, before the light of a small flashlight showed where Terry was stooped over, kneeling on the ground.
“You b******e!” Tom called, striding up to his brother and roughly jerking him to his feet, the flashlight falling out of Terry’s hands, “What the heck are you doing?”
I stepped closer but stayed out of the brothers’ way. The flashlight beam rested on a pile of ancient yellow bones.
“Get off me!” Terry shoved Tom’s hand away. “You know what I’m doing!”
“Yeah, steal another bone and the Cleaves will come take it right? Then what?”
Terry was practically crying. “Then I’ll make her tell me why she killed mom!”
“How’s that going to work, idiot? You’re gonna be asleep when she comes! What if you mess up and lie to her, huh? What then? She’ll chop your head off too!” Tears were welling from Tom’s eyes now as well.
“Then you do it, dipshit!”
“I’m not that crazy!”
“No, you’re just a f*****g coward!”
“I’ll do it,” I said softly.
“What?” The brothers stopped, turning to me in unison.
In their defense, both tried to talk me out of it. But I was resolved. Part of it was that I still wasn’t completely sure this wasn’t just some enormously elaborate prank that the brothers had decided to pull on me. Partly I wanted to see if the legend was true. But the main reason I ill-advisedly took a small finger bone from the witch’s burned-out cellar was I wanted to help my new friends.
Walking back to their house we came up with our plan. We discussed if it made more sense for me to stay with them that night but decided I’d have to stay in my room to make sure Ol’ Mother Cleaver would come. Tom and Terry had never heard of anyone being killed in a bed other than their own, and if there was going to be a confrontation, we wanted it to be when we were ready for it.
We decided that after their dad left for work that night the boys would come over and hide in my yard. We spent a lot of time discussing if we should rig some kind of booby traps, but ultimately ruled against anything that might make the Cleaves decide to wait and come another night. Tom had a heavy practice bat he would bring, and Terry was a deadeye with his wrist slingshot. I’d go to bed around eleven, same as always, the bone resting on my nightstand. After that, we would simply see what happened. I had always been honest growing up, my dad had been sure to instill that in me, but I was still a little nervous how I would respond half asleep.
The rest of the day was a blur.
Finally, it was time to go home. I ate dinner with my mom after she finally got home from work, and if she noticed I was unusually quiet she didn’t say anything. It seemed like she had a lot on her mind too. I sat next to her on the couch and watched tv for a while, though I wasn’t really paying attention, until at last the wall clock said it was about time for bed.
I stooped over to give her a hug and, abruptly, felt tears spring to my eyes as I realized this could be the last time I saw her. What the hell had I been thinking earlier? Why had I agreed to do this? The bone, suddenly extremely heavy in my pocket, reminded me it was too late to back out now. Ol’ Mother Cleaver, if she was real, would be coming either way.
“I love you, mom,” I said softly.
“I love you too, baby,” she smiled, “Sleep tight.”
I went to my room to change, brushed my teeth, and put the bone on the nightstand. I eyed the dark space beneath the bed, forcibly willing myself not to look. Was the Cleaves already there, waiting for me to go to sleep? I moved to the open window and saw a light flash twice; the signal Tom and Terry were in position. Now all we needed was for me to fall asleep.
I don’t know how long I lay there in my bed that night. I’d been worried that with the fear and excitement I wouldn’t be able to nod off, but next thing I knew I was startled awake when a heavy weight settled next to me on my mattress.
“Shh, it’s ok, honey, it’s ok,” my mom shushed, “I just wanted to check on you. Sorry I was distracted tonight. You ok? You seemed a little off at dinner.”
My heart leapt into my throat before I confirmed that it was, in fact, my mother. It was dark in my room, but there was enough light streaming through the window from the moon that I could tell it was her, certainly not an enraged witch readying to chop my head off.
“I’m ok, Mom. You seemed weird too. Is it something with dad?”
She shook her head, “No. No that’s… we’re fine. We still don’t know what we’re going to do permanently. But it’s work that’s distracting me. Nothing you can help with honey. Go back to sleep. Sorry to disturb you.” She gently stroked my hair.
“S’ok, mom. Love you.”
She sat there for several long minutes, softly caressing my head. My breathing slowed, and it wasn’t until I was again on the verge of sleep that she finally stood up to leave.
“Sam?” her voice sounded far away, “What’s this on your nightstand?”
“Sorry, Mom,” I breathed, “It’s to help Tom and Terry.”
“That’s my good boy.”
She bent over and kissed my forehead.
It was a long beat before my brain processed what had just happened. My eyes snapped open and I shot up in bed, a pulse of fear coursing through me. I was alone in the room.
I rushed to the window but, other than two flashes of light confirming the brothers were still outside waiting, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The rest of the house was dark and quiet, and I carefully confirmed that my mother was asleep in her bed. Maybe it had been a dream brought on by an overactive imagination. Maybe.
I didn’t sleep the rest of the night.
The next morning, I checked with Tom and Terry. They’d taken shifts to ensure one would always be awake, but neither had spied anything strange. I relayed what had happened and they were dumbfounded as I was.
Little did I know that would be one of the very last times I’d see the brothers. While I was outside talking to them, my mom got another phone call. I learned later that the judge she worked for at the courthouse had been taking bribes. My mom had found out and had been trying to figure out what to do about it. Ultimately, she didn’t have to decide because the judge was found murdered. Rumor was his head had been chopped off.
We moved from town shortly after that. My parents ended up getting divorced, but I got to see my dad regularly and they both seemed happier for it, so that was ok. I stayed in touch with Tom and Terry through mail for a while but eventually we fell out of contact. With the internet and social media today, I’ve thought many times about trying to track them down, but I haven’t. I don’t know if they ever managed to confront Ol’ Mum. Frankly, I’m scared to find out if they did.
The world I grew up in was different, more isolated. If a judge mysteriously had his head cut off today, it would be making headlines the world over. But that was then.
This is a true story. I don’t much care if you believe me because I know it is in my gut. I know because, ever since that night, I’ve made it a point to be utterly truthful in everything I’ve said and done, lying to no one, including myself. Because I’ve still got the finger bone. Why she took Tom and Terry’s all those years ago and left mine I can’t fathom. But if the night comes that Ol’ Mother Cleaver sneaks out from under my bed and asks me about my sins, ready to deliver her unique brand of justice, I want to be sure I answer honestly.