What We See In The Woods, Part 4: The Nemeton

What We See In The Woods, Part 4: The Nemeton

Lost in the woods —but how could he be? This wood was not big enough to lose anything in. Just walk straight in any direction and you would be out of it in five minutes. He had been walking straight for half an hour now, or at least he thought so. Perhaps he was walking in circles. No matter how hard he tried to keep an eye on where the sun was behind the canopy, he was being deflected. That must be it.

Keep the sun to the right, he thought, and wasn’t there something about the side of the tree the moss grows on? The north side. Or the south side. Trying to remember, he noticed a dog standing a few metres away, looking at him.

He stopped and assessed the problem. The dog did not look aggressive, but it was not wagging its tail either. Those stories about the spectral black dog came to mind, but this dog was a dusty grey colour. It looked like a wolf, but there had been no wolves in these woods for four centuries or more. Just a big grey dog.

‘Hey boy,’ he said.

The dog turned and walked away. Jacob followed, convinced that it would show him the way out. Dogs rescued people. This one would rescue him — though he was in very little actual peril, lost in a small wood.

‘It’s just that the trees all look the same,’ he said out loud.

Then everything changed.

There was a clearing filled with bright sunlight. The dog stopped at the centre of it and looked back at him. Jacob stepped into the light.

The clearing was roughly rectangular without any small trees or bushes. Grass grew in the sunlight. Jacob stood at one of the short sides of the rectangle and at the other, directly opposite him, stood what appeared to be the trunk of a massive dead tree. He looked up into the sky, but could not see the top of it.

He looked down again, and the dog was gone without a sound. Alone in the clearing, he felt compelled to approach the tree trunk. Laying his hands on the warm reddish wood, he felt vibration. Pressing his face and then his right ear to the tree, he heard a rushing sound inside, as of sap pumping upwards to an invisible canopy. The tree was not dead at all. It was enormous and he — he was tiny, insignificant.

Pressing himself close to the tree, he wanted to be absorbed into it, to live here forever, feeling the sap rushing through his veins.

He kicked off his shoes and began to climb. The wood was smooth and shiny, but Jacob was no longer human. His body became supple and sinous, his hands and feet stuck to the wood and allowed him to climb, to go on climbing, up and up until he reached the branches and leaves and fruit that were somewhere far above.

Walking back home in the late evening sunlight, Jacob felt the joy of life in his bones. He was smiling, thinking what a beautiful day, what a strange dream.

As he put his key into the lock, the door was pulled open and his wife was there, crying. His brother and sister were behind her. They were talking all at once, pulling him into the house, touching him.

‘What’s going on?’ he said.

‘Where have you been? What happened to you?’ they asked.

‘I went for a walk. I climbed a tree.’

‘You’ve been gone so long!’

‘I did stay out a couple of hours longer than I meant to, but—‘

‘You’ve been gone three days.’

‘Three days?’

He caught sight of himself in the hall mirror, hair sticking straight up, face sunburned, eyes wide and crazy.

He could smell the scent of the tree, feel the warm smooth wood under his alien hands, hear far away overhead the promising rustle of foliage and the cry of a strange bird.

Realities lurched and crashed together.

‘I climbed a tree,’ he said.

Lost

Lost

A small, cold hand pushed into his. He tried to pull away, but, small though it was, it gripped him tightly. Looking down he saw, indistinct in the darkness, the face of a boy looking up at him.

‘Was it you crying?’ he asked. ‘How did you get in here?’

He glanced around the garden, at the shadows of the high wall, the dense prickly hedge and the locked gate, then back down at the boy. He tried to pull his hand away again, but the child was not letting go.

‘I’m lost,’ said the boy in a high, distressed voice.

‘But how did you get in here?’

‘You’re lost too.’

‘No I’m not. This is my house, my garden. Where do you live?’

‘I live here.’

‘No, I live here. If you lived here, you wouldn’t be lost.’

‘You lost me.’

‘Me? I don’t even know you,’ though the boy did look familiar, he couldn’t think why.

‘You’d better come inside,’ he said. ‘I’ll phone the police and they’ll find out where you live.’

But the boy was gone.

Tom could still hear him crying. It sounded a long way off down a dark tunnel. There were no tunnels. He went to find his phone and shone the torchlight into the garden, almost expecting to see something strange out there, but it was just his garden, leaves shivering in a light breeze, the lawn empty. No boy at all. The gate still locked.

He wondered if he should phone the police anyway. He did not, because what would he say to them, and would they even be interested in a boy who was not there?

The crying faded away, but he could still feel the pressure of those small fingers on his hand.

‘You’re lost too.’

Tom felt tears in his eyes. He shook his head, took a deep breath, shut the patio door and pulled down the blinds.

The following evening he pulled down the blinds early and made sure the windows were closed. Still he heard the thin wail of a child. Couldn’t the neighbours hear that? Why didn’t they do something? Tom went back to the cost/benefit analysis he was compiling for a client and ignored the noise until it stopped, when he felt no relief, only emptiness.

On the third evening, he played music loud enough to cover any noise, yet still he heard the child’s wailing. He turned off the music in anger and pulled up the blinds. In the middle of the lawn stood the boy’s pale figure, illuminated by moonlight. Opening the patio door, Tom stepped out.

“What are you doing here?’ he asked. ‘How are you getting into my garden?’

‘I’m in the hole you dug,’ said the boy, snuffling.

‘What? I don’t dig. I pay a gardener. Go away.’

He moved towards the boy in what he hoped was a threatening manner. There had to be an end to this. Now.

‘Why are you coming here?’

The boy stood there, silently sobbing, and Tom started to feel like a brute.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Is someone making you do this?’

‘You,’ whispered the boy. He held something up to his face, hiding behind it.

‘What—?’

Tom reached out and took the toy, a ragged grey rabbit, its fur worn thin, one ear flopping down.

‘Where did you get this? I threw it away years ago.’

He recalled a faded photo of a tiny boy alone in a garden, holding a brand new and already beloved toy rabbit. Then he knew why the boy looked so familiar.

He was alone in the dark garden, a grown man and a little boy all in one, sobbing, and holding a toy rabbit to his face as if it could soak up all the tears and bring back all the lost dreams.

Inheritance

Inheritance

A ghost passed through me. An icy mist shivering through the spaces between the atoms of my body. With it came the fleeting image of a garden, like a memory, but not mine. Someone else’s.

I was visiting my Aunt Julie and this happened just as we were stepping into her garden. I hesitated for a moment, and she asked if I was all right. I told her I was, and dismissed the sensation.

Julie had made a beautiful garden, filled with roses now in late June, but in my mind I saw a darker garden with heavy evergreen trees and—

‘Was there ever a sundial?’ I asked, moving towards the end of the garden.

‘A sundial? No. Oh, there was one once.’

‘Here,’ I said, ‘where I’m standing.’

‘Yes, I think it was about there, before you were born.’

She laughed.

‘It was rather ugly, and no use because—‘

‘Because it was always overshadowed by a big holly bush,’ I said.

‘Yes, but how do you know? Have you seen some old photos?’

I shook my head.

‘I must have done, I suppose. You’ve made it much more beautiful.’

‘Thank you. Decades of work from me and the plants, that’s all it took.’

We went back into the house. My parents had moved to Scotland before I was born, so I hardly ever saw my aunt or cousins. Now Mum and Dad were gone, i felt the need of other relatives.

We were drinking tea and chatting about the past when Julie got up and brought out a stack of old photo albums.

‘Where is it? Ah, this is the one.’

She opened a small brown album, the cover crumbling at the hinge.

‘There,’ she said, laying it on my knees, ‘that’s the garden as it was when your Uncle Phil and I moved in here.’

The photo was black and white, of dark looming trees, the white shape of a sundial just visible in the shadows, but the memory I had was in colour. Dark greens and browns, and a stormy sky above. Yet I had never before visited this house, or this town, even.

When I looked up from the photo, another false memory smeared itself across the sunny room with its bright furniture and flowers on the window ledge. The remembered room was all shades of brown and dark maroon, heavy furniture, ornaments on every surface, an aspidistra gathering dust in a dark corner, an upright piano against one wall with a row of fat plaster cherubs lounging on top.

‘What is it?’ said Julie, then she snatched back the photo album and closed it with a snap.

I came back to the present and dusted fragments of the album’s binding off my lap, then thought better of it and began to pick them up from Julie’s clean red carpet.

‘It’s not old photos you remember, is it?’ she said.

I shook my head, but doubtfully.

‘It couldn’t be anything else, could it?’ I said. ‘Were there photos of the inside of the house, too?’

‘No,’ she said, ‘there weren’t. Your mother never told you why they moved to Scotland, did she?’

‘Dad got a job up there.’

‘No. Well, yes. He got the job because they had to move away from Shuckleigh.’

I felt a twisting nausea in my stomach. Had to move. Some horrible family secret was coming.

‘You should go back to Scotland now, and not come back here. We’ll come up and visit you, the way we always have.’

‘What is it Aunt Julie? I would like to know why we never came to visit you when there’s so much family here.’

Julie stood up and walked across the room to put away the album. I looked down at the little crumbs of leather cupped in my hand, and waited.

‘Our family have been here a long time. Probably since before there was a town. Well, you know the place is known for odd goings on? No? She didn’t even tell you that. Perhaps she thought it would interest you too much.’

She stopped, contemplating whether she ought to go on. I could see the hesitancy in her eyes. She took a breath.

‘Some of us have always been a bit sensitive. I see things myself from time to time, but I ignore them. Your mother, Angie, saw things almost all the time. There were days when she couldn’t tell the present apart from the past in front of her. We tried to hide it, make excuses, but once she was at the doctor’s for her swollen tonsils and she saw an angry black cat in the consulting room. It wasn’t there, or at least not then, but the doctor started talking about hallucinations, schizophrenia, medication.

‘Your Dad, Jack, he understood the family history. They’d go on trips away and she’d be fine. It was something about this place. That was when they decided to move, and he got the job in Glasgow.

‘Now look at you. You’ve been in town an hour and you’re already seeing things. Stay here and drown under the weight of it like Angie almost did, or go back to Scotland and live a normal life. That’s your choice.’

‘There’s a woman in the corner,’ I said. ‘She’s wearing a long white dress, and I think she’s trying to say something.’

Julie followed my gaze, then stood between me and the vision.

‘Ignore her. Whatever she’s trying to say is something long gone and of no importance any more.’

Julie hustled me out of the room, and called for a taxi. Within half an hour I was standing, holding my overnight bag, outside the station. Everything looked normal, but if I tried to really see, other shadows came into focus. The past, or stray thoughts? I did not know, but if I left, I never would.

I turned away from the station. Across the road, I saw the woman in white reaching towards me, mouthing words I could not hear. I started to walk towards her, stepped into the road, leapt back to the kerb just in time as a bus bore down on me.

The adrenaline of the near miss cleared my mind. There was a train in five minutes, and I was going to be on it.

Snakes and Ladders

Snakes and Ladders

Dark night, dark clothes, dark wall, small window overhead open just a crack. he found the handholds, footholds, enjoying the climb, taking pleasure in his silent skill.

At the window he braced himself enough to free one hand and nudge the frame. It swung open a bit further without a sound. Perfect.

Grasping the frame, he pulled himself up, looked inside. A store-room of some kind with shelves along the walls. His dark-adapted eyes could make out no threatening shapes, so he nudged the window further open and slipped through into the house.

They would be at home, all asleep now, just the way he liked it. Padding softly about the house, Jase would lift all the small valuables, even right from their bedside tables. They never woke. it was his great talent. No breaking, no vandalism, just a quiet, professional job.

Jars. Rows of them. Shading his pencil torch, he turned it on, and started back in surprise.

Tentacles. Jar upon jar of tentacles, with pink or blue or pale white suckers, suspended in clear fluid, each jar labelled in what he supposed must be Latin, though he did not really know.

Turning off the torch, he stood a while in the dark, trying to shake off the mild shock, listening to the house for any hint of danger.

As he always did, Jase spent some days watching the property. No-one ever came out, and a lot of things were delivered. Old people or invalids lived here, he concluded, and a carer who opened the door to deliveries and the occasional visitor. Rich old people, since the house was so large and very well-kept. Now he could add strange old people. Maybe one of them used to be a biologist or something.

He glanced back at the window, a faint rectangle of less intense darkness, his means of escape should anything go wrong. Turning away to look for a door out of this storeroom, he became aware that in all the jars, the tentacles were emitting a faint glow. Had they been doing that before? Perhaps he just had not noticed.

With a soft, cautious tread, he moved along the shelves towards the far wall where a door ought to be located. The room proved to be much bigger than expected. Unreasonably so.

After five minutes, Jase started to breathe faster. Years of life as a professional intruder — his own definition of his work — gave him the ability to stay calm in very challenging circumstances, but now some ripples appeared on the surface of that calm — an awareness that something was not right.

He stopped. He did not want to throw away so many days’ careful preparation, but what kept him out of jail was a willingness to recognise when a situation was too hazardous.

True, nothing had happened, The house was silent, but all his instincts told him that there was considerable risk in going any further. the darkness was deep around him, in spite of the glow from the jars. He took two more steps forward, his arms stretched out in front of him, and touched something soft and warm, something that moved gently under his fingers, as if it was breathing.

He pulled away and backed off a few steps, stopping to listen. Nothing. No sound at all. Even the quietest, most empty house still makes small noises — the creak of cooling masonry, the wind whistling through windows or across chimneys. Here, it was as silent as a soundproofed room.

Jase backed away further, then turned and retraced his path towards the window as fast as he could while still being cautious. He wanted to run, but that would have been stupid.

Ten minutes later, he still had not reached the window, and his customary calm was nearly gone. he clung to the shreds of it, reasoning that he must have got lost — but how could he be lost when the path he took from the window was straight and the path he took back was also straight? He must, he thought, have somehow turned a corner in the dark without realising, and at that moment he saw an opening between the shelves and their glowing jars.

After only a moment’s pause he turned between the shelves. A few paces later, he knew that it was a mistake. The glow was gone and he was in complete darkness. He turned to go back, but the way he came in was no longer there.

The torch — he got out his torch and turned it on, not bothering to shade it. He was in a corridor, narrow enough that he could touch both walls at once with this outstretched hands. In both directions, he could see no end to it. On either side there were doors at regular intervals, all closed. The floor was of bare wooden boards, shiny in the torchlight as if they were very old and well-used.

Doors were hopeful. There might be good pickings behind them or, more importantly, a way out.

He listened at the nearest door. There was a faint rumbling sound. He turned the handle and opened it. Moist stone steps led down and down. The rumbling was louder. Wisely, he thought, he chose not to go there, and closed the door.

Behind the next door was silence, but it opened onto a corridor just like the one he was in. No.

Behind the third door there was nothing. It was a blank black space which swallowed up the small light of his torch and reflected no light back. He closed the door slowly and looked up and down the corridor. So many, many doors. Perhaps he should have gone down the stairs behind the first one. At least stairs were normal. He walked back to that door and tried to open it again, but it was locked.

The house was playing with him, and he started to understand that here, you could never go back to where you’d already been. Everything changed behind you.

Choose a door at random and go through, he decided. One, two, three, this one. A set of stairs going up this time, wooden stairs. Afraid of the noise, he climbed shifting his weight gradually step by step, only making the quietest of creaks. The stairs turned and twelve steps further up he came to a door. He opened it a crack, not daring to shine his torch through, and listened. Nothing. He stepped through and the door closed behind him.

Now he used the torch, turning it on and then off again when he saw where he was. He didn’t want to see that.

A room full of shelves, and on the shelves, jars, and in the jars, eyes.

He stood with his back against the closed door, pulling on the handle, willing it to open, but it was locked.

The jars began to glow, and all the eyes were looking at him. He screamed and ran, and ran and screamed, not caring if anyone heard him, wanting to be heard. No-one was listening, and the room went on forever.

The Follower

The Follower

Gabriel knew that someone was watching him. He was well past the prickling on the back of his neck phase. Now it was a constant awareness.

Since Lori found him — tunnels she said, but he did not remember any tunnels — something had been wrong. What happened to him that he was hospitalised, and then off work for a week because he could hardly stand up? What happened to him that was so bad he could not remember three days of his life, and some things before, too. There were blank spaces in his memories stretching back for months.

At first he tried to recall, but then wondered whether he was withholding something from himself for good reason. That was even more disturbing than mere loss of memory. Gabriel considered the problem and reasoned that, if it was so bad, suppression might be the best option. He surrendered to it.

A month later his body was almost recovered, though sometimes he felt a deep upwelling of fatigue. His mind, though, was far from normal. Never before was he afraid of the dark, but now he was compelled to buy one of those plug-in night-lights for kids because he could not sleep in complete darkness. There were happy little bunnies on it which he found comforting (and that was disturbing too).

The knowledge that he was being watched crept up on him. At first a faint paranoia, rising to a certain knowledge. On a lonely street he might hear something slithering behind him, or catch a glimpse of an odd shadow. In his own flat he had a sense of being overlooked, even when he closed the curtains and locked the door. He avoided other people, looked over his shoulder constantly, but the fact that there was no-one there did not make the feeling go away.

Shaving with a slightly shaky hand, he heard a faint intake of breath behind him and felt the light breeze of and out-breath on the back of his neck. He paused mid-stroke and stared at his own wide-open eyes in the mirror. The breathing came again, He leaned a bit to his right, but the only thing reflected in the mirror was the bathroom door. A swift turn — nothing there. Nothing there. Yet he felt warm breath tickling his wet face. There was a faint foul smell about it. Trembling even more, he turned back and finished his shave, rinsed and dried his face and left the bathroom. the breathing followed him.

He didn’t know what to do. Standing a while in front of the bookcase, he tried to think. Running his gaze across the familiar spines, he noticed an old notebook that he did not remember, maybe belonging to one of the blanked-out memories. As he reached out for it the breather seemed interested, its breath quickening, so Gabriel reached further and picked out an old copy of ‘Frankenstein’ instead.

He made coffee and sat down to pretend to read the book, using the time to think what to do. He decided to go to see Lori, whom he’d been avoiding for weeks because she might ask questions he could not answer.

Before he left he returned Frankenstein to the shelf and palmed the notebook, shoving it into the waistband of his jeans, hoping that whatever was watching him had not seen. It followed him. he could feel it closer than ever before.

Lori was just finishing her early-evening ghost tour when he caught up with her. She was surprised by the warmth of his greeting and alarmed as he leaned too close to her.

‘Can you see anything behind me?’ he whispered. ‘I’m being followed.’

‘Person, or…’

‘Or.’

She gave him a hug, then drew back with a slight shake of the head.

‘Come on,’ she said, ‘there’s someone you should meet.’

He followed past Lori’s flat and down a narrow side alley. She stopped at a nondescript black door and knocked twice.

‘Lori! And friend. Come in,’ said the tiny white-haired old woman who answered.

Gabriel felt a pressure on his shoulder, as if something was trying to hold him back. he wanted to obey the restraint, but managed to pull away and through the door. Inside, he felt lighter, a burden lifted.

‘This is Mildred,’ said Lori. ‘Mildred, meet Gabriel. He’s being followed by something nearly invisible.’

‘Nearly?’ said Gabriel.

‘I got a sort of shimmer in the air behind you.’

‘Come and sit down,’ said Mildred. ‘I’ll make tea. Don’t look so worried, dear. It can’t follow in here. We’re well defended.’

Over tea, Lori told Mildred all about the tunnels and how she’d found Gabriel with the help of the people in the dark house. Gabriel listened in astonishment.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t realise. I don’t remember any of it.’

‘I think they gave you something to make you forget.’

Gabriel pulled the notebook out and leafed through it. Pages and pages about the tunnels under Shuckleigh, with diagrams. All his tunnel research was there in his own handwriting, but he was reading it for the first time.

‘Well,” said Mildred. ‘I wouldn’t put it past those people to be following you, but I would say you brought something up to the surface with you. Something that wants you back.’

Gabriel fell the stirring of an awful memory. He did not want to look at it. Ever.

‘What can I do?’

‘Leave your notebook with me,’ said Mildred, ‘and stay here. I will clean your mind and put you out of its reach.’

‘Make me forget again?’

She shook her head.

‘You have some sort of attachment. I can feel it pulling on you, even here. It’s getting something from you, feeding, I think.’

Gabriel shuddered.

‘Do whatever you can. Please.’

‘It isn’t an easy process. It will hurt, and might damage you.’

‘Please,’ he said, ‘I don’t want it in my head any more.’

Two days later, Lori came back to take him home. He was hollow-eyed and pale. Stepping out through the door he took a breath, waiting to see what would happen. There was a sense of something touching him, but sliding away, unable to find any holding place.

‘Lori,’ he said, ‘I’m afraid. I never was before, but now I think I’m always going to be afraid.’

‘You get used to it,’ she said.

The Wicker Woman

The Wicker Woman

Beth was afraid of shop window dummies. Their fixed distant gaze, their frozen attitudes their almost-but-not-quite humanness, all these made her shudder. What she hated most was the shock on releasing that what she thought was a person, was not.

This only became a real problem when she opened her own dress shop.

It was a tiny shop, just off the High Street, and everything in it was her own work, from original designs to reworked vintage pieces. She needed a window display. Starting with a couple of pieces on hangers suspended from the ceiling was okay, but looked amateurish. Then a friend told her about a sculptor working in basketry.

Ella was a magician with wickerwork, and she made a beautiful, tightly-woven, figure of a woman for Beth. The mannequin stood a little taller than Beth, in a graceful pose with its arms by its sides as if they were just about to be raised to the world. The wickerwork was smooth enough not to snag on clothing, and the arms were detachable for easy dressing. Importantly, the face had no features. it was a perfect womanly form without being too human.

Beth was very happy, and quite comfortable with this solution. She dressed the figure in a red dress and black velvet coat. They both sold very quickly, and people kept on coming in. Everything was going better than she had hoped.

There were times when no customers were in the shop, and Beth would go back into the little sewing room to work on new pieces. She would hear the occasional creaking sound from the shop, but when she looked out nothing was amiss.

One day, changing the clothes on the mannequin, she noticed that one arm did not fit back into its place quite as it should. It had raised a little, as if reaching for something. Just the basketwork drying in the sun, Beth supposed. She finished dressing the window and went back towards the sewing room. a loud creak sounded behind her. Turning around, she saw that the mannequin’s arm had raised a bit more. The early morning sun must be warming it, she reasoned, hoping that it would not warp too much, thinking about phoning Ella to ask for advice.

Beth forgot all about it during her busy day of selling and making, pleased by the success of her venture. At the end of the day, she was reaching for the door on her way out when there was another creak from the mannequin, and she thought its head had moved, just a little, to look in her direction.

‘It doesn’t have eyes. It can’t look,’ she told herself. ‘It’s just cooling down now the sun isn’t shining on it any more.’

She got out of the place as fast as possible, though.

In the morning as she came in, she could not help looking over at the mannequin and saw at once that its head had turned far enough to appear to be looking directly at her. She shut the door and moved quickly to the back of the shop, to turn on the lights.

Her heart was pounding, but she calmed down quickly. The wicker was drying, that was all, or the shop was too humid. Some change in the atmosphere had caused the warp and weft of the woven structure to twist.

Beth went back to the shop door, changed the sign to ‘Open’ and looked directly at the mannequin. Nothing to be afraid of.

Later on she phoned Ella to describe what had happened and to ask if there was anything she should do. Ella laughed.

‘It’s no problem,’ she said. ‘I like to weave a little life into my sculptures, that’s all.’

Afterwards, Beth wondered exactly what Ella meant — and that odd laugh — but set it aside and got on with her work.

Clearing up in the sewing room at the end of the day, she thought she heard something in the shop, but paid no attention. Then she heard it again, a noise like something dry being dragged across the floor.

Picking up a large pair of scissors, trembling, she edged into the shop.

The mannequin was no longer in the window, but stood in the middle of the floor, between Beth and the door. She sucked in a quick panic breath and held it, frozen, looking at the thing. It reached out towards her with both arms. She let the breath out in a ragged scream and ran forwards, stabbing at the mannequin over and over. It fell, crumpled and crumbling, at her feet and she took hold of it, dragging it to the tiny back yard space where the bins were kept, pausing only to grab some matches she used for testing fabrics.

Dropping the broken mannequin on the concrete, Beth struck match after match, letting them fall onto the dry basketwork figure. It did not take long to catch fire. She watched it crackle and burn, its head twisting in simulated agony, flames giving the face a mouth and eyes at last, the arms reaching out, trying to touch her.

Beth stood until nothing remained but a drift of smouldering ashes. Amazing how fire could make something seem alive, she thought, but it was only movement caused by combustion, wasn’t it?

A piece of singed fabric fluttered in the hot air, and she briefly regretted the fate of the dress the mannequin wore. Then she turned away, went inside, shut the door and carefully forgot that the thing had ever existed.