What We See in the Woods, Part Six: Isobel’s Tree

What We See in the Woods, Part Six: Isobel’s Tree

The stories kept most people out of the woods, but for some people, those stories are what draws them in. Isobel was no ghost hunter or folklore enthusiast. For her the stories spoke of a world beyond our own that was calling out to be visited. If the woods were a portal to that world, Isobel intended to step through it.

She chose a warm summer day, and still being of this world, she took a bag with a drink and sandwiches. At first it was a struggle to make a path in, because the undergrowth of brambles and bushes was so dense. Once she got through the outer edges, the undergrowth thinned out beneath the trees, giving way to broken, nettles, and stands of horse tails like miniature primeval forests. Birdsong filled the air. It was all lovely, and very ordinary. As far as she could see, there was nothing sinister here, only an old piece of woodland going about its many lives in peace, happy to be neglected by human beings, left to grow and rot and grow. Everything was as it should be.

Isobel kept on walking, hoping to see spirits, or the Old Lady, but only seeing what anyone would expect to see on a summer walk in a wood near a small town.

Sometimes she had the feeling of being watched, but there was no-one around, and she put that down to her unfamiliarity with being alone in a wild place. Gradually, she got used to it, and began to relax into the idea that she really was alone, no other person nearby. No-one to watch her, judge her or threaten her. She walked slower and slower until she stopped and stood, quiet in the midst of the green.

All around was the pulse of life and death. The crackle of drying leaves, the whisper of stealthy fungal growth, the streaming of sap in the trees and bushes, the hurried rush of mice and insects in the mulch of decaying matter. Sometimes the heavier tread of the fox or badger, and above and among it all, the endless singing, fluttering busyness of birds.

In the town, life was life and death was another thing altogether. Here, in the woods, they were the same, with no dividing line between them, turning hand in hand in the endless dance.

Isobel dropped her bag and, secure in her aloneness, began to take off all her clothes until she stood naked, her toes curling into the leaf litter, her eyes seeing only the green of moss growing on the trunk of a fallen tree.

As she stood all of the chatter in her mind faded away until there was nothing there. Perhaps not even Isobel remained, only quiet being with awareness of the whole world about her. An ant began to climb her leg and she recognised its existence, but she was as still as the sapling ash tree at her left hand.

The sun moved past its zenith and began to travel down towards the western horizon. The skin on Isobel’s legs began to crackle and dry. She had found the portal. From her feet to the tips of her fingers bark covered her soft skin, hardening in the cooling air. She lifted her arms and watched new growth leaves spring from her fingers. Her hair turned to moss and leaves. Bark grew over her eyes, but then she saw everything.

It was many days before anyone thought to search the woods for her. They found her clothes and her bag resting against a small but sturdy tree. She was never found.

At certain special times of the year, a small group of women go into the woods to lay flowers and offerings at the foot of this distinctive tree. They are often overcome by a profound stillness and drift into a trance, hearing a voice whispering to them. One member of the group must always stand back, stay alert, and when she feels a certain danger point she rings a bell to end the communion.

To go there alone would be to risk never being seen again.

Night Dancers

Night Dancers

Lori pressed her fingers to her lips, tried not to move, not to make a sound, not to be. She must not let them know that she was there, these dark things, or they would vanish, and she would never understand what kind of creature they were.

Amoebic blobs of darkness, dancing at the edges of the inadequate illumination from a few well-spaced street lights, it was hard to make out any form in them, and Lori felt a sense of wrongness, but did not know if it was coming from her own uncertainty or from the things themselves.

She had encountered a lot of strangeness, but nothing like this before. Walking home alone at almost one in the morning on a moonless night was worrying enough. Her keys were in hand, their ends projecting between the fingers of her fist, and the self-defence moves learned years ago, but never used in anger, were uppermost in her mind. None of this any use against dancing pieces of some deeper night.

Then the street lights went out.

The council called this their dark skies project, but really it was just a money saving strategy. At one o’clock every night, all of Shuckleigh’s street lighting was turned off.

And Lori could see nothing at all.

She stood still, waiting for her eyes to adapt. Gradually she became aware of movement again, just where they were before, or a bit closer? It was hard to tell. In the sky a multitude of stars glittered. further up the street two windows showed dim, curtain-obstructed, light. None of this was much help. Lori unzipped her bag as quietly as she could and fumbled for her phone. At this slight noise, all the dancing things stopped, drew together, and began to move towards Lori.

She got the phone out and found the torch setting, jabbing at the screen. The street ahead was suddenly illuminated and all the dark things scattered into the gloom at the sides of the beam. Lori swung the patch of light around but they, whatever they were, always stayed just at the edge of the light. Then her phone lost charge and shut down.

She was there in the dark, her night vision ruined by the bright phone light. Ah, well, blobs — who knew what that was all about? She set off to walk the rest of the way home, keeping a hand out in front of her and going slowly until she could see a bit better.

Her cheek was brushed by a soft, velvety something, warm and yielding, and then another, and another. Startled, she swiped at them with her fist, forgetting the keys bristling between her fingers. There was soft pop as one of the blobs burst under the unintended assault. then they came at her all at once, and the world was blacked out by soft, suffocating bubbles of night.

Lori would have yelled for help, but she was afraid of swallowing one of these things, and what might happen if she did. Flailing with desperation, she fought through them, aware that she was popping more of them, but unable to resist the panic, until she could see the faint window lights ahead, when she began to try to run. The things clung to her, dragging on her legs and body, but she managed to make some progress.

A motion-activated security light flashed on and the bubbles were gone at once, but she knew they were waiting just outside the pool of light. If she stayed still, the light would go out at any moment. Lori decided to run for it.

Home was only five minute’s walk away, but she made it in two, with fear at her heels. Up the stairs, in the door, shut it, lock it, turn on all the lights.

Her hands and arms were covered in a fine black powder. When she brushed at it, the dust shivered, fell away, and disappeared. Lori felt a sudden chill of guilt. Were they living things? Had she, in her ignorance and panic, killed some of them without even understanding what they were?

The last of the black dust scattered in the air and vanished. Lori was left remembering the soft impact of the unknown against her face, and wondering what kind of encounter she had allowed fear to destroy.

The Imaginary Passenger

The Imaginary Passenger

‘I don’t know what to do about it,’ he said, glancing at the rearview mirror to make eye contact with the pale young woman in the back seat. ‘I ought to tell him why he’s wrong, you know, but I don’t want to lose my job.’

He had just driven across the old bridge over the River Lost on his way into town, going slow because there were often animals in the road after dark, and he hated running things over. Suddenly all this work related stuff flooded into his mind and he just wanted to tell someone. The passenger gazed back at him and said nothing.

‘No, you’re right,’ he said. ‘I have to keep my mouth shut. I can’t afford to get fired, but I’d just like to tell him what I think of him. When I find a new job, after I’ve got a reference, then I’ll tell him.’

He glanced into the mirror. She gazed back at him.

‘No,’ he said, ‘you’re right. I’m never going to say word. I don’t have the guts.’

He smiled ruefully. The outskirts of town came up. He looked into the rearview mirror, but there was no-one there. After a moment of confusion he realised that of course there was no-one there. He must just have imagined a passenger because he needed to get all that anger and frustration off his chest.

*

As the motorcyclist rode across the bridge over the River Lost, he felt her arms tighten around his waist.

‘I’m glad you’re there,’ he thought. ‘I really missed you.’

She squeezed him a little more and he felt comforted. he could feel her arms around him, her body against his back, her slight weight altering the performance of the bike. Not alone after all.

As the street lights of the town approached the feeling faded until she was no longer there. He choked up.

‘I miss her so much, I imagined her with me,’ he thought. ‘I’ll call her, ask her to forgive me. No— I’ll write her a letter. Better that way, to get down exactly how I feel.’

*

‘I just had to get out,’ said Prim, ‘even if it did mean walking three miles on a dark road to get home. I’m so glad you’re here. It’s better to have someone to walk with.’

The river rushed by under the bridge and the pale woman walking by Prim’s side smiled.

‘I expect you feel the same,’ said Prim. ‘Walking in daylight is one thing, but at night you just think every car has a mad rapist at the wheel, don’t you? And I’ve had enough of creeps for one night. I swear, I’ll never go on a blind date again.’

They walked on in silence. Prim admired the shimmering dress her companion wore, just like flowing water.

‘That’s a beautiful dress. Been to a party, I suppose? Aren’t you cold, though?’

The woman smiled.

‘Well, It’s a warm enough night,’ said Prim.

The first of the street lights were just coming up. ‘Almost there,’ said Prim, but her companion had gone. Prim assumed that she lived in one of the houses they had just passed, but thought a goodbye would have been nice.

*

A woman was in the lorry cab next to him. She appeared as they went over the bridge, and It was all Will could do not to slam on the brakes. She was pale, wearing a thin silky dress and she was dripping wet.

‘Are you all right?’ he asked, though he could not understand where she’d come from. Had she been hiding in the back of the cab?

It seemed to him that she was asking if he was all right.

‘I’m fine,’ he said. ‘Never better. But what about you —.’

There was no-one there. He pulled over and stopped. There was no-one there. The seat was perfectly dry, too. He sat for a minute or two, his heart racing.

‘There was no-one there. I imagined it,’ he thought. ‘Why?’

Will drove on, but the vision of the pale woman and her silken clothes flowing with water would not leave him for days.

*

Ron gripped the steering wheel of his car and tried not to think, not to remember what had just happened.

It had not happened. He would take the car through the car wash first thing tomorrow and forget all about it. A moment’s distraction, that was all it was. Could have happened to anyone. But it did not happen.

He was just driving across the bridge when he knew he had a passenger. In the rearview mirror she looked at him, blood and water running down her face. Panic took him, and he braked too hard, the car struck the kerb, tipped and rolled over and over. Darkness.

Flashing lights, a policeman looking in at him, the car door opening. He tried to look around, but his neck hurt.

‘Stay still,’ the policeman said. ‘The ambulance will be here soon. You shouldn’t move.’

‘What happened to her?’ Ron said.

‘Who?’

The police spent some time looking. They noticed the blood on the radiator and the bonnet of the car.

‘Could be a deer?’ said the policeman.

His partner took a flashlight and searched the bridge, back to where the skid marks began, but she found nothing. She looked over the bridge, down into the river, and for a moment she saw a woman beneath the water, pale and fluid, dark hair trailing in the current, but when she shone her light into the river, there was only water weed streaming with the flow.

A different ambulance sped past them, and reports of a hit and run incident followed over the radio.

As she walked back to the accident, the police officer saw, from the corner of her eye, a woman standing on the bridge, pale and cold, water streaming from her hair. The officer knew that if she turned to look there would be no-one there, but she also knew that the river woman was watching.