This story is for Sue Vincent’s Thursday photo prompt. As usual, she has prompted something unsettling.
If you like this story, why not dip into a whole collection of them? There’s The Spring Dance, folk tales and fairy tales, and Tales from the Northlands, dark and Nordic and utterly free today and tomorrow.
There was a bit of woodland between the dual carriageway and the leisure centre, right after the Tesco roundabout, where the dairy farm had been before the industrial estate was built, and the dual carriageway, and before Tesco. It was just a scrubby bit of leftover, a reminder that there had been a whole wood in the shallow valley between Alcot’s big cabbage field and where the meadow of the dairy farm began. Those were the days when cows went outside into fields now and again. When they ate grass and the farmer kept a bull in another field and a lad with a terrier to bring the herd in for evening milking.
The wood had been there since forever. Elms and ash were grown spindly and broken-boughed with neglect, and the oaks, too many and too close together, were small and scrubby. There was a plan to level the woodland site and build an entertainment complex. Land was too valuable to leave it unused. The developers came up from the city and take their measurements, sound out the subsoil, work out their costings. There was no one left from the time of the farms and the woods to explain to them why it was a bad idea. No one had ever really known what went on in the wood anyway. But they all knew to leave well alone.
Alcot had sold up and left years before and the dairyman too. But the lad with the terrier was still alive, and he watched the men with their hi vis jackets and their hard hats as he leant on his walking stick at the edge of the Tesco car park. He watched as they stretched their tape and lined up their theodolites, and he wondered which of them would be the one who stayed behind and went into the wood alone. Because there would be. There always was. His eyes drifted out of focus, and he was ten years old again and Rex, was racing back and forth, keener to get after a rabbit than stay with the cows.
There had been a fence along the edge of the wood then, but no gate. The cows stayed away, and usually, so did the local kids. But every now and then, someone would be drawn over the fence, just to have a look. There was nothing to see, they’d say, white-faced and shaken, nothing…nasty. It was just that the wood, on the inside, was different. That day, the one he would never forget, he had been the one who climbed the fence and dropped into the bracken on the other side. Immediately, he had felt the change in the air, the silence that was heavy and expectant. No sound of the nearby road reached him nor the tractor in Alcot’s field. No birds whistled, and Rex had not followed. The terrier had cocked his ears in puzzlement but he remained firmly on the far side of the fence. The daft lad he had been then shrugged and plunged into the bracken that seemed denser, lusher than it had done from the other side. The trees were thicker, broader, and the light thin and pale.
Perhaps he hadn’t been as daft as all that. Perhaps he had an idea of what the wood meant, the perspectives that bent and curved, the trees that towered, and the leaves that were like no leaves he had ever seen before. Whatever, wisdom or fear, he stopped before the top rung of the fence was completely out of sight. The silence stroked his cheek and he flinched. Turning round sharply, to peer into the strangely dark depths, he caught a movement in the piles of shadow, swift and furtive, and in a stray beam of sunlight, the glint of something metallic.
He turned back to the fence and ran, refusing to heed the wild bird cries, the alarm call of a large mammal, the whistle of something past his ear. He ran as if he feared the fence would have gone, that the wood would have become a forest that went on and on forever, as if suddenly he believed the stories. But the fence was still there, and Rex, and he almost sobbed with relief when he flung himself back over and into the field full of lowing cattle and the familiar chugging of a tractor.
He understood the wood that day, and he had not forgotten. As he watched the surveyors pack up their things to leave, all except one, he wondered if the young man in the hard hat would understand before he ventured too far. And the way back closed behind him.