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.

Dancing Shoes

Dancing Shoes

‘Pretty aren’t they?’ he said.

They were. Soft red leather with a sprig of daisies embroidered on each rounded toe, a heel, but only a small one, nothing to teeter on, beautiful shoes.

‘I haven’t seen you here before,’ she said. The Wednesday market was known for its vegetables, the artisan bread stall, wonderful sausages from Holly Farm, pottery sometimes, but never a shoe stall.

‘Hand stitched by me,’ said the cobbler. ‘Everyone should have one pair of red shoes. Try them on.’

He was bright-eyed, with dark curly hair and slender hands that did look capable of embroidering daisies onto leather — and the shoes were lovely. Jessie tried them on. They were a perfect fit, almost as if they were made for her. The price was ridiculously reasonable. She bought them.

Later, she wondered when she would ever wear them. There was nothing red in her whole wardrobe. They might go with black, she supposed, or navy blue, but her feet would be the most striking thing the whole outfit. It was a pleasure just to look at them, though. Perhaps she would do exciting things in these red shoes. She put them next to the chest of drawers in her bedroom and they were the last thing she looked at before putting out the light.

The next morning she noticed that the toes of the red shoes were a bit scuffed. How could that have happened? She had not even worn them yet, except for trying them on at the market. Had she accidentally kicked them last night? She could not see how, but that must be the answer.

That morning she bought some special red polish which covered scuffs, and in the evening, carefully polished the shoes, avoiding the embroidery, returning them to almost pristine condition. Jessie arranged a place for them in the shoe section of her wardrobe, thinking of saving them for her next special occasion.

She went to the pub with some friends that night. The red shoes definitely weren’t pub shoes. Even though they had not been expensive, they were so pretty that she wanted to keep them perfect, and she found herself thinking of them now and then. Admitting this to her friends started up a whole discussion about shoes. Pinching toes, heels — how high? How much agony to put up with just to look good.

‘None,’ said Beth, who wore Doc Martens with every outfit and in every season.

The talk made Jessie laugh, and when she got home she kicked off her everyday shoes and felt her footwear obsession go into the corner with them.

The night was filled with vivid dreams that faded as soon as the alarm woke her. She was stiff all over — probably too much booze. Dragging her eyelids open with the force of will, she saw, in the early morning light, something red by the closed wardrobe doors. Those shoes.

They stood together neatly, but when Jessie took a good look, she saw that they were scuffed again. Definitely too much booze. Definitely.

Polish the scuffs out again, put them away, promise not to drink so much in the future, and stop thinking about shoes.

She stayed in the following evening, feeling rather tired, watching five episodes of The Oracle, then going to bed and falling asleep right away. There were more dreams. When she woke, Jessie knew that she had been dreaming, but could not hold onto a single moment of it, and she felt more tired than the evening before. So it took her a while to notice that the shoes were out of the wardrobe again, and this time they were spattered with mud.

She stared them for a good long while, and the only explanation she could come up with was sleepwalking. Somehow, her mild obsession with the shoes had turned into a nightly expedition. She was getting up in her sleep, putting on the shoes, and from the mud on them this time it looked as though she was leaving the house. That was a terrifying thought.

People drove cars in their sleep, she’d heard of that, but where did she go in her pyjamas and red shoes?

By sheer good luck and persistence, Jessie managed to get an emergency appointment with her doctor. he was not wildly sympathetic, but she did get him to agree that she might be put in danger by her nocturnal activities. He prescribed some strong sleeping tablets, suggested putting an alarm on her front door that would be bound to wake her if she opened it, and referred her to a sleep clinic. The waiting time for an appointment was three months.

Before going to bed, Jessie put the red shoes downstairs in the kitchen cupboard, along with the saucepans. She had the stupidest feeling that, just before she closed the door on them, the shoes smiled and winked at her. Not possible. No eyes, no mouth, no winking, no smiling. Just another sign that she was suffering from stress, though she could not actually say that she felt stressed by anything other than the sleep walking.

The next morning the shoes were back in her bedroom.

Jessie stopped cleaning them and they became, day by day, more scuffed, muddy and worn on the soles. In desperation, she decided to try to stay awake the whole night. Coffee would do it. She was very sensitive to caffeine. Two cups, no sleep.

Sitting on the bed, watching the shoes, there came a peculiar moment. Something surged through her, and she was in the shoes, dancing out of the room. One look back and she saw herself sitting on the bed still, but she was leaving, too, wearing a red velvet dress. One, two, three steps and she and the shoes were out in the woods, which were all aglow with flying things, and people were dancing through the trees. They looked like people. They danced and she joined in. There was no choice, the shoes took her where they wanted. Someone with dark eyes and bright silver hair grasped her by the hand and they whirled and flew together through the night.

This time, she remembered it all in the morning.

It happened to be a Wednesday, and she was at the market early, shoes in hand. The cobbler’s stall was there and she marched right up to him, an angry tirade rising in her mind.

‘Hello,’ he said, smiling, ‘you’ve worn them out really fast, haven’t you? Need another pair?’

She did not quite know what to say anymore.

‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s been awful. What did you do to me?’

‘Really? I thought you were a party girl. My mistake. I don’t do refunds, but I can exchange them for you. Here, try these.’

He took the red shoes, and put a green pair into her hands.

‘No!’ she yelped. ‘I don’t want another pair of your cursed shoes!’

Jessie was looking right at him and his smile, but he was no longer there. She was standing in front of a fishmonger’s stall, shrieking and waving a pair of green shoes. Embarrassed, she turned away, noticing that these shoes were embroidered with dragons in glittering purple thread.

The shoes are in her bedroom, but she is afraid to try them on. They are tiptoeing their way into her heart, though, and she wonders where they will take her. Someday soon her feet will slip into them and she will find out.

Wild Swimming

Wild Swimming

The Shuckleigh Women’s Wild Swimmers were rebels, lawbreakers. You could deny them permission to swim in your bit of water, but they would do it anyway.

This lovely lake was part of the old Mosse estate, and was strictly off limits to all swimmers. Sure, there had been past drownings, but what stretch of water has never had someone drown in it? The women of the club swam everywhere, and always had an eye to safety, knew what they were doing, and were all strong swimmers — and were very buoyant, too, most of them. Something to do with cake, no doubt.

Maureen was the treasurer, a post which required no more than collecting a small contribution from each member towards the cost of the apres-swim cakes, and the purchase thereof. It was she who had suggested this lake for their next swim. They asked permission, of course, but received only a simple refusal without explanation, except that the lake was dangerous.

‘How can it be dangerous?’ said Elly, the club secretary. ‘It’s not that deep, there’s no outflow to cause currents. I don’t know what he means.’

‘It’ll be the mere-maid,’ said Nelly, the oldest member, tiny, white-haired, and with a headful of local stories.

‘Mermaid?’

‘Mere-maid, like the pub. She’s supposed to guard a treasure in the lake, and sometimes appears to young men, luring them to a watery death with the promise of her beauty.’

There was general hilarity, laughter spreading in waves through the cafe where they were meeting, breaking over the heads of the other, disconcerted customers, along with cries of ‘She won’t be interested in us then!’, and ‘Unless she likes ladies too!’, followed by many dirty jokes about the sexual leanings of mermaids. Several customers drank their coffee and left.

Now, with the waters of the lake lapping at her ankles, Maureen felt an unfamiliar sense of unease. the lake looked far deeper than it was supposed to be, the waters black in the early morning light.

Elly and Nelly and half a dozen others were already up to their waists in water, chatting and giggling, but quietly, since they were here without permission, trespassing with intent to swim.

Maureen watched the others plunging into the water, striking out towards the centre of the lake. It did look good, but there was something else she could feel, creeping up from her chilling feet through her bloodstream to her heart.

‘I’m not brave enough,’ she thought, and then wondered where that had come from. ‘Buck up,’ she told herself. Pushing aside all anxiety, she waded in, feeling the silty, slimy mud oozing between her toes. Stretching forward, she plunged into the water and breast-stroked her way towards the others.

In the middle of the lake she paused, resting in the water, sweeping her arms gently around her, feeling the silky liquid passing through her fingers. The others were swimming nearby, breaststroke, backstroke, crawl. Maureen’s thoughts drifted away into nothingness and she found the great peace of an empty mind for a moment.

Then something brushed against her leg. It felt like a hand. One of the gang playing tricks. She scanned about to see who was missing, but they were all in sight, and besides, not one of them was noted for their underwater swimming skills. Probably just a fish. Or the mere-maid. She laughed, and began to swim. Again, a hand brushed her leg. She stopped and pulled herself into a ball, which caused her to tip face-forwards into the water. Floundering, she opened her eyes and saw, down in the dark brown water below, a pale face looking up at her. She thought it was a corpse floating there, suspended below the surface somehow, dark eyes open — but the face smiled at her, the eyes widened.

It is not advisable to scream underwater, but she tried it. Tannic liquid in her mouth advised her otherwise and she reared back to the surface, gasping in air.

She was not sure that she had seen what she imagined, and nobody was close enough to speak to. Maureen began to swim towards the shore, afraid of what might be below. For speed, she was doing the crawl, not her best stroke. She had not gone far when, on the downstroke, her left arm was grabbed and she was pulled to a stop. This time she screamed in the air, and then managed to pull in one last deep breath as she was dragged under.

Down, down, how deep was this lake? She thought of the cake and flasks of hot tea waiting in her car, she thought of home, then she forgot all of that.

The mere-maid was leading her down, the grip on Maureen’s arm strong and unrelenting, but it was not dark down there. Black streams of the mere-maid’s hair obscured Maureen’s vision, but would drift aside to show wonderful things, all ablaze with light.

She forgot about the bother of not being able to breathe underwater, filled with elation at the great blooming of truth she saw below.

Someone grabbed her trailing hand. There was a short tug of war for possession of Maureen, then the mere-maid let go, gazing after her with sorrow in her eyes. ‘No,’ said Maureen as the vision faded.

Choking up water, lying on the grass with towels thrown over her and Elly pumping away at her chest, she gasped back into the ordinary world. All the women in bathing costumes and one angry man were standing around, looking down at her.

‘I informed you that this lake was dangerous,’ the man was saying, but no-one was listening to him.

Maureen wondered if he knew why the lake was dangerous. She closed her eyes and remembered and began to cry.

‘It’s all right, Maureen, you’re okay now,’ said Elly, not understanding when Maureen shook her head.

They sat her up and gave her hot tea, and then an ambulance arrived and a nice young paramedic took her pulse and listened to her watery lungs and insisted she go to hospital.

‘I don’t want to see any of you here ever again,’ said the angry man.

Just before the ambulance doors closed, Maureen thought she saw a pale arm rise from the centre of the lake, and she imagined swimming with the mere-maid again.

Far Away, Getting Nearer

Far Away, Getting Nearer

Noises in the house walls has to be rats, right? Or mice? Or maybe beetles?

I mentioned to our neighbour that we were calling in pest control, and she gave me one of her looks.

‘Might not be living things,’ she said.

“What?’ I struggled to think what she might mean by that. Crumbling mortar?

‘No,’ she said, looking at me as though I was some kind of fool. (I’m sure she thinks exactly that, she looks at me this way every time we have a conversation.) ‘Elementals, or poltergeists, something like that.’

I did not give her the ‘you’re clearly a fool’ look back, but some of it may have leaked through my attempt to appear politely surprised.

‘You’ll see,’ she said in a doom-laden voice. ‘You’ll find out.’

She turned away with a dismissive wave and went back to dead-heading her roses.

‘I’ll let you know what we find,’ I said, hoping that it would not be beetles. Rodents I can cope with, but little scuttling things freak me out, and the gulls. They were getting particularly noisy. We are nowhere near the sea, but like everyone these days we have gulls, and a whole flock of them had taken to sitting on our roof.

I told Danny, ‘Mrs Watson think we have poltergeists.’

‘That would be a poltergeist. I don’t think you can have more than one of those,’ he said, but he didn’t take it seriously. Neither did the pest control man. He went about the house, lifting floorboards, examining skirting boards, listening at the walls. Finally he went into the attic. I went up there with him and watched while he poked around in all the dusty corners.

‘No,’ he said.

‘No what?’

‘No sign of rats, mice, beetles, wasps, bees or ants. Not even any spiders. Cleanest house I’ve ever been in.’

‘Thanks,’ I said.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘There should be something. This isn’t a new house. There should be something. It’s not normal for there to be nothing.’

‘But what is causing the noise in the walls?’

He shrugged.

‘Maybe the water pipes? Never heard anything like it myself.’

Danny and I lay in bed at night listening to the sound in the walls. It had a sighing quality to it, and was like a thin stream of sand running over a rough surface.

In the morning I came into the living room and found Danny with his ear pressed to the wall.

‘It’s louder here,’ he said.

I put my ear to the wall and heard what sounded like waves pulsing onto a shingle beach.
That night I had a dream. It seemed very real, but it must have been a dream.

I woke to the sound of waves, louder, closer, and the cries of the gulls overhead. The gulls were so noisy that I could not get back to sleep. I wondered what was upsetting them so much in the middle of the night, the one time when they were usually quiet. I got up to get a drink of water to relieve the dryness in my mouth. The sound of waves had grown much louder, as if it was coming from outside, not in the walls. I opened the bathroom window to look out.

A great sea stretched to the horizon, and waves broke against the stony bank on which our house was perched. Cold moonlight illuminated the waves. A gull cried once and swooped away into the far distance.

Not understanding what I was seeing, I went downstairs and opened the front door. The street was gone. The town was gone. The house stood by itself on a rocky outcrop, surrounded by shingle, surrounded by sea. I walked all around the house. Rocks and sea were all I found.

Far on the horizon, in every direction, dark shapes moved. It was impossible to make out what they were, but they were coming closer, and I was afraid. I ran into the house and got back into bed.

In the morning, there was no sea, but I remembered the smell of it, and the cold breeze on my skin, and my lips tasted salty.

Mr Watson was out in the garden again, and she asked what the pest control man had found.

‘Nothing,’ I said.

She nodded wisely, ‘You mark my words—’ she began.

‘It’s the sea,’ I said.

She frowned at me and shook her head.

‘There’s no sea.’

‘It’s in the walls,’ I said.

She backed away from me, and went into her house. We don’t have conversations any more.

I often wake to hear the sea at night, and a low, loud, booming, far away but getting closer. I never go to look because there is nothing I can do. They are inexorably approaching. What will happen when they arrive? I try not to think about it. It’s only a dream. Isn’t it?

Night Terrors

Night Terrors

It is never dark in my dreams. The world is bright and filled with light. But this time — I was walking down a street that I was familiar with (in the dream world), though I had not been there for some years. There were shops, and I was walking downhill. As I came closer to the bottom of the hill everything got darker. There was one shop, selling antiquities, that was well-lit inside, but most of the other shops were shut and dark, possibly closed down. There were no street lights. I could hardly see. A dimly-lit cafe seemed to be open, but was barely visible in the misty darkness all around me. I wondered what had happened. It never used to be like this.

I didn’t hear them coming.

Suddenly someone put an arm around my throat. I choked and struggled, and woke up.

My memory of the dream is vivid because of the darkness, and because it seemed to me that I did know that street, and whoever or whatever attacked me, I knew them too.

We say these things are only dreams, but they are as real as life itself. They are life itself, or part of it.

This dream did not leave my waking life alone. I could not shake off the disquiet and the sensation of not being able to see properly, of being alone in a strangely altered place, at the mercy of someone who wanted to do me harm.

The dream darkness was not clean — it was as if there was a dirty mist over the world, or perhaps the darkness was not only from a lack of light, but also from a dimming of my own vision. I became increasingly convinced that there were things around me that I was not seeing. Something was stalking me. Each night I went to bed, hoping for another dream to show me the truth.

Again, I was walking in a dark place, but not one I knew. There was the same quality of murkiness, of a lack of light and a dimming of sight. The ground was hard underfoot and gritty. The air felt damp. There was a little light, as much as might be given by a slender moon behind thin cloud, but not enough to see by. I held my hands out in front of me as I went, but felt nothing but a fine cold mist.

A shadow moved to my right, but when I turned, there was nothing there. On my left side some darker patch of darkness moved. I turned towards it and saw something else behind me. They were all around.

I ran. Pale hands reached for me out of the grainy air. I screamed and fell, and woke.

The darkness loomed at my back through my waking days, but it did not come into my dreams for many nights. The days filled with gloom were worse than the nights of disturbing dreams. I was dragging a great burden behind me, one that might at any moment waken and destroy me. It made me so uneasy that I began to wonder why these dream people were hunting me? Had I done something to deserve it? Was some transgression of mine causing these nightmares?

No matter how hard I looked at myself, I could not find anything other than mundane failings such as any human being commits, yet I felt as much uneasiness as I would have if I was a murderer, and the body was buried in my garden.

I reasoned that perhaps, since my persecutors lived in dreams, the sin might have been committed in the dream world. Of course, I remembered only a tiny fraction of my dreams. In that world I might be a monster, and would never know on waking.

The third time I dreamed of that dark place, I was aware that I was dreaming. This had never happened to me before. I had spent so much time thinking about the dreams that I recognised what it was. Now, I thought, since I was fully here in the dream I was in control. I could steer the dream in the direction I wanted it to go.

The ground under my feet was wet and muddy this time and I had a sense that all around there were trees, crowding close. I told myself that there was a torch in my pocket. I was wearing an old blue coat of mine with deep pockets and, feeling among all the inexplicable bits and pieces in there, I did find a torch. Pulling it out, I pointed it ahead and turned it on. It flashed and died, but not before it had illuminated a terrible face, dark grey and so deeply wrinkled as to look melted. Purple lips curled back to reveal many yellowing teeth in a bright red mouth. The eyes — they were not human, ochre irises with vertical slits for pupils.

I was terrified, but told myself that this was only a dream and that I could be the monster here if I willed it — if only I knew how to be a monster.

Taking a deep breath, I prepared to roar my monstrousness, but the now unseen thing took one squelching step towards me and grasped me by the throat with a scaly clawed hand. I tried to scream. I should wake now, the fright should wake me. Stinking hot breath blew foul against my face, teeth sank into my flesh. I screamed once, briefly, then all was pain and silence.

I did wake up, of course, but what am I now? My sleep is a black empty void. I am not even a ghost in the world of dreams. I feel like a ghost in this place that we call the real world, broken and empty. The dark mist is inside me, and that is all there is.

Broken Strings

Broken Strings

I dreamt of tapping on my bedroom window. Little fingers tap, tap, tap, wanting to come in. I woke up and the tapping continued, but i had not risen far out of sleep, and I turned over and sank back down into the dark.

The dream was forgotten, as most dreams are, until I noticed small oval smudges on the window pane when I pulled up the blind. I stared at them for a while, then decided that it must have been something blown by the wind. I opened the window and looked down into the garden, but I saw nothing out of the ordinary. It is twelve feet or so to the ground so I could have missed something small.

Later, I cleaned the marks off, though they were already fading.

This carried on for three more nights and it was really starting to get on my nerves. I tried to work out what was causing it, and finally decided that it must be bats. There are a fair few flitting about here on the edge of town and I thought they might be after spiders or something around the window frames.

I didn’t — I did not think of anything unnatural. Nor did I think of anything human. There were never signs of a ladder under the window, and why would anyone want to do that anyway? There was no reason.

None of this disturbed me too much. A few peculiar dreams, I’m used to them; waking in the night; a few marks on the window. Just a puzzle, nothing more. The worst of it was that it disturbed my sleep.

I make puppets, all kinds, but mainly marionettes, carving them from wood. At that time, I was working on a difficult commission, and the sleeplessness was making it impossible for me to get on with carving the face of the main character. One slip and I could ruin a whole piece of wood, and wood is much more expensive than it used to be.

On the fourth night I dreamt that someone was banging on the widow frame, as if they had lost patience with me. I woke up and lay there listening to the banging for a while. Should I get up and see what it was? Did I want to see? I told myself off for being so cowardly and started to get out of bed.

The banging stopped.

I got up anyway, and pulled up the blind. There was nothing there, and nothing in the garden that I could see. Back in bed, it took me a very long time to get to sleep.

In the morning I pulled up the blind again, and an electric jolt of fear went through me at the sight of small handprints all over the lower part of the window pane. I may even have emitted a tiny scream. Bats most definitely had not left such marks.

I tried to take photographs, but the prints would not show up. I even called the police, but they were not impressed enough to come to my house. They filed a report, I think, but there was no break-in, nothing stolen, so I came very low down on the list of priorities.

These things were happening around one o’clock in the morning, so I decided to catch whoever was playing tricks on me. I went to bed as usual, but sat up waiting, clutching a torch. It was a long wait and I did not make it, dozing off to sleep sitting up. Banging on the window pane woke me suddenly. It was so loud I thought the glass would break. The whole window rattled.

I jumped up, dropped my torch, fumbled on the floor for it. The blind rolled up of its own accord and I saw that the window was open. All that rattling must have loosened the catch.

The banging had stopped. I got to the window without the torch and could not see anything outside. As I shut the window and pulled the blind down, I thought I heard something behind me. Slowly I let the blind back up so that a little moonlight would shine in, and turned around. I didn’t want to see, but I also didn’t want something unknown jumping on me.

There was something in the room, something small, coming towards me with odd, jerky movements. I stayed very still until it moved into the moonlight and looked up at me with beseeching eyes.

‘Pablo?’

He was one of my favourite marionettes. I put my soul, and some blood, into carving that appealing face and always regretted that I had to sell him — but here he was in my bedroom, walking towards me, his face broken, half his mouth missing, one hand smashed. Some kind of crazy dream.

I dived for the bedside light. Pablo was no longer there. I called for him, but got no answer.

In the morning, as early as was reasonable, I phoned the director of the puppet theatre that owned Pablo.

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘a few days ago there was an accident. Our metal storage shelves collapsed and quite a few of the puppets were broken. We’re going to have to get rid of them and claim insurance.’

‘Pablo?’

‘Well, yes, he was one. How did you hear about it?’

‘A friend told me. I’ll come and get Pablo. I’ll repair him for you, free of charge.’

‘He’s quite smashed up.’

‘I know, but I can repair him.’

I carved Pablo a new lower jaw and a replacement hand, and glued in and received some fresh wood on the side of his face. the puppet theatre took him back with gratitude, and he has not come calling since.

I remember all of the other characters I have made, putting something of myself into their faces, their hands. They don’t belong to me any more, but I cannot help feeling that I belong to them.

I leave my window open at night.

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.