The woods used to be so much bigger. Hundreds of years ago, spanning from one horizon to the other, a sea of deep and dark greens that gave life to the Earth, and hid many secrets. At least, that’s what his parents used to keep telling him. Now it was a small oasis in the middle of the city. Nestled between the towering trunks and the verdant canopies that all but blocked out the sun, Ben still thought it was pretty big.
The woods were where he came for the quiet, for the stillness, which could only be found deep in the heart of it. Away from one side, where the play-park stood, where many children he grew up with played and frolicked in, and away from the busy road on the other, where the sounds of angry roaring vehicles penetrated the peaceful valley he longed to be lost in.
He had spent most days of his summer here, lost between the trees, but there was still so much to explore. The woods swept upwards toward the bright blue sky that was obscured by the green wall above him. The sunlight filtered through the leaves softly, and warmed his skin, and he smiled at its touch. He continued upwards the slope, using trunks as leverage, feeling the dirt that lingered on his skin. The world was almost silent, except for life around him. Insects buzzed, birds sang, squirrels bounced from branch to branch, all hidden from him, but they all radiated the same feeling to him, the feeling that the world was alive. He always felt like he was in another world, the first to explore this brave new path. He always felt like he was the only creature in the world. Except he wasn’t.
The hue in the sky began to change as the sun began to lower itself. He didn’t have a watch or phone with him, but he knew it would be time to head back soon. A surge of energy rushed through him, an urgency to get to the top before it was too dark to find his way back. He knew the way. He scrambled further up the incline, but the trees grew tighter together, and the plants underfoot grew more uncontrolled and unruly, reaching past his knees. He squeezed between two trees. He was so sure he knew the way. He pushed forward, the trees began to obscure the turning sky, and he was bathed in shadow.
He found a clearing and moved towards it, and he was here, at the top. Only, he was never here before, not in this exact spot. The clearing was small but flat, with a few large rocks, but it looked out towards the woods he had just passed. He didn’t care what his parents had said, the woods were huge. Underneath a golden sky, the vast greenness stretched out towards the houses that lived opposite, the roads and the town beyond it. He might be able to see his house from here, if he knew what it looked like from above. He took a moment to absorb it all with wide eyes, and a smile creeped to the sides of his mouth. He inhaled the brisk air, and let it escape his mouth. The temperature seemed to be dropping, but it refreshed him, it felt pure in his lungs. He scanned the horizon, looked from towering red cranes to church steeples which began to silhouette underneath a falling sun. He was lost in the view, feeling very, very tall and at the same time, very, very small, against the backdrop of his home turf. A twig snapped behind him, and he was suddenly brought back to the woods.
His head whizzed round to find the culprit, unable to see anything, until more twigs snapped, movement from the trees behind him. He tensed his body, unable to call out or speak, barely able to move if something hideous jumped out at him. His eyes widened again, and he braced for the worst, but whatever it was, it was slow moving, lumbering, taking it’s time. Finally he saw something emerge, and saw it was the head, and then the body, of a deer. Ben watched in awe. He had never seen a deer outside of a wildlife park. Not a live one, at least. He knew there were deer in the woods outside of town, but he never expected to see one here, in his little world of discovery. It was beautiful, but there was something off about it. It was dying, almost limping, it’s legs looked like they could no longer hold it’s weight, it’s mouth was open, desperate for breath. Ben wasn’t sure if it even noticed he was there. It came to the opening, only a few feet away from where he was stood, and it’s front legs buckled. It tried to keep it’s strength up, but it could not. It looked out towards the open sky and the human world beyond, before it slumped to the ground. It’s head hit the floor, it’s tongue rolling out, it’s mouth opened and closed, trying desperately to claim some oxygen.
Ben moved his feet slowly, making his way towards it, until he decided it could not even recognise he was there. He knelt down beside it, looked it straight in it’s eye, but it did not seem to register he was there, even this close. He lifted his hand to touch it, but hesitated. He stared at it’s chestnut coloured fur, looking for any wounds, but there didn’t seem to be any that he could see. He lowered his hand slowly to touch it, when the air around his fingers seemed to ripple. The deer’s eyes darted straight to him, suddenly noticing he was there, but neither of them moved. Ben’s eyes returned to his fingers, and he watched the air, it almost seemed to sparkle and shimmer. He moved them around, and watched as little glitters twitched and danced around him. He was mesmerised. Until he noticed the deer was no longer breathing. He placed a hand on its body and felt a jab of fire crawl up his arm. He shouted and retracted his hand. It had felt like his palm had been burned, but there were no marks or scars, then his head began to throb and hurt. The light no longer shimmered. He pulled his hand back, and studied the creature. It seemed to have died, right in front of him. A great deal of sorrow and pain washed over him, and he felt the shadow of the setting sun. He clenched his jaw tightly, and prepared to move, but then the deer began to move below him. Not the whole deer, but it’s head twitched slightly. Ben watched, half in horror, half in awe, as something seemed to emerge from it’s head. Two white lumps, one above each eye, seemed to rise from its brown fur, then continued to grow. Slowly, like two snakes, the rods grew and grew, before forking and splintering off, and Ben realised it had grown antlers in its death.
Ben’s mouth was open, the creature had gone from doe to stag in less than a minute. Once they reached a certain height and symmetry, they stopped growing, and the deer was still again. Ben kept his eyes on the dead deer. Suddenly the world had gone very quiet. He was too far from the cars and the children to hear them, but even the birds and insects had stopped. So too, had the wind. Ben had never felt such a sudden stillness, and the feeling crept up his spine with icy perseverance. He looked around, desperate to find any other life, but there was none. He was truly alone now. He swallowed his fear, and felt the bitter aftertaste. He looked down again, and saw the antlers had begun to grow something. Little bumps, little dots that rose, and peeled, revealing the red insides. The red lumps grew more, and Ben recognised they were roses, small, but numerous, then other flowers, of all colours. There were vibrant yellows and soft pinks, warm purples and shocking blues. The flowers grew from the creatures headgear, and as quickly as they appeared, they began to wilt, and fall. Soon, all of the flowers had fallen, and remained as brown piles, that began to disintegrate further. Ben watched with horror, as the antlers too began to decay, sifting away to the floor like white sand. The deer itself began to rot, it’s brown fur began to shed and fall, and it’s skin faded to dust. Its red flesh seemed to melt, and it’s bones began to crumble. Ben looked one last time at its face, but its eye dissolved in front of him, and its bony smile had revealed itself. Suddenly he could hear noise. He looked out around him, and saw the decay had spread. The trees bark began to slowly turn from brown to black, and the grass and flowers that sprung from the ground began to bow their heads, and slowly turned to brown.
Ben had never ran so fast in his life. Through the trees, down the steep decline. He almost lost his footing, now that the darkness has fallen, but he still raced on. He emerged to the other side where children still played, but he still did not stop. He did not stop running until he was home. That night he barely spoke. He ate dinner with his family as usual, but he did not listen and he did not talk. His brother Tim had kept badgering him to play a two-player Game with him, but he told him he did not feel well, and went straight to bed.
That night his dreams were twisted, but he did not wake up afraid. The dread would come much later. He decided not to revisit the woods today. He had swallowed his fear, but he could still feel it in his peripherals, at the back of his skull and at the ends of his fingertips. He felt a change. The sun was once again blazing and the sky was once more blue. He told Timmy he would spend the day with him, after feeling a little guilty about not playing the game last night. The two decided to go to the shop for a cold treat, after procuring the money from their mother before she left for work, they were left to entertain themselves. They left the house, and Ben inhaled again. The air wasn’t crisp as it was last night, but it was warm and cloying. Timmy asked him what was wrong, but it was nothing. It was probably nothing.
As if in automation, they walked up the road and turned their usual right, and found the park and the woods staring down at them. Ben was frozen in place, but Timmy raced forward. The park was always shaded by the trees above, and Timmy revelled in it, refreshed. He ran straight for the wooden apparatus, and lost himself in the tunnels and flew down the slide, before jumping onto the rope-nets and climbing with ferocity. He turned back to Ben, who hadn’t moved an inch. When he reached the top, he jumped down and returned to his brother. He was so still, pale. He stared deeply into the woods as if it stared back. The trees were green, the grass was green. Nothing more seemed to have rotted and die, far as he could see from here. Timmy turned his head to where he was looking, but saw nothing.
“What’s wrong? Don’t you wanna play today?” He asked with an arched eyebrow.
“No. Come on, let’s go.” Ben replied without even looking at him. He turned his head stiffly, and walked with purpose down the road. Timmy turned to look one last time at the woods, but again, nothing was there. He shrugged and followed his brother. They circumvented the woods, climbing up the big hill they both hated, that served as their commute to school after the holidays, and the quickest route to the shop. Timmy returned to telling Ben about the game he played last night. He used his hands to simulate the explosions with the appropriate sound effects, and he jumped to show how the bad guys died. Once again, Ben stopped. He let Timmy continue, but the sound of his brother was distorted, suppressed. They had reached the summit of the hill, and the main road was just before them. To their right, was the top of the woodlands. A long railing attached to a metal gate that stood about waist-high separated the stony hill from where the park was. The trees were far away, and before that lay a patch of overgrown, unkempt tall-grass and weeds, brambles and thorns. No-one went this way, and yet, he could feel something.
An unheard whisper, a beckoning by invisible hands. He made his way to the gate, not even able to hear his brother calling his name. He stood at the iron barrier. The railing was a simple, long iron rod stretched from the gate towards the road. That’s all that stopped him. He could have easily climbed over it, but he wouldn’t. He didn’t feel like he was being willed to. Slowly he crouched, ignoring his brother’s impatient whines, barely hearing the cars roar past the road, not feeling the glorious sun on him. There was nothing but the will to move forward. He held the metal rail in his hand, felt the warm touch, and peered his head below. He saw an impenetrable wall of green and brown stands, thick thorns and broken sticks, but as he moved closer, he was sure they began to shimmer and sparkle. He didn’t know what he expected to see under there, in the overgrown mess of plants and thorns. He certainly didn’t expect to see a pair of bare feet.
He jumped up, eyes open, trying to find the owner, but there was nobody there. Only the trees and the plants, and the buzzing insects. He felt a tug on his hand, and Timmy was pleading with him to tell him what was wrong. Ben could see tears forming in his eyes. He took the money out of his pocket and pressed it roughly into his brothers hand.
“Take this, okay. I’ll meet you at the shop in two minutes. I think I lost something last night in the woods, I’m just gonna try to find it. I won’t be long, I promise.” He said with as much warmth as he could muster. Timmy appeared to be mulling it over in his head.
“Okay.” He said finally. “Two minutes, I’ll be counting.” With that he ran towards the road, and turned towards the shop. Ben could hear him counting as he went. He swallowed, and bent down again. Slowly, with resistance, he moved his head under the railing. The air began to sparkle once more, and he saw the feet again. They were brown, and covered in sores. The nails were broken and dirty. Ben felt disgust rise in his throat. He moved his head closer, and saw that the feet had calves, legs and knees, the more he looked up he could see there was a whole person there, standing upright towards the sky. Only, it wasn’t. Not a living person, anyway.
The skin was torn, an arm and an eye were missing. The flesh was rotten and had turned brown. The chest was bloody, but the wounds had long since cauterised. Ben could see that this must have been a woman, and her face was stretched in a grotesque Rictus smile, showing off her white, broken teeth. Ben pulled back, away from the shimmer, and looked with desperation. Again, there was nothing, no-one standing in the field. His heart hammered in his chest. Slowly he reached back down. The body was just standing there, facing forward where he had been standing. He turned his head, and saw the sky above wasn’t a glorious sheet of blue anymore, it was a purple haze. Like a cauterised bruise that seemed to shift and move in the expanse above. Something was wrong here. Even the plants were different, each strand of grass had been replaced by thick bushes of thorny branches. He could see beyond that behind the woman, were more figures. All dead, all rotten, all standing upright and facing towards something. There were dozens of them, all statuesque in the field beyond the woods, the way where no-one went. Ben felt his breath quicken. He retracted himself once more.
He had remembered to bring his phone this time. With fumbling, sweaty fingers, he pulled out his phone. He scanned left to right, but there was no-one coming. No-one on this side of the railing, anyway. He was alone here, but he did not feel it. He couldn’t tell if he wanted someone to come this way, or if he desperately didn’t. He held the phone in his had, and readied himself, ready to take a photo. Once more he leaned in, gripped the iron bar, and found himself millimetres away from a face, staring into a single, solitary eye, with a stretched smile below. Ben tried to scream, but no sound ever came out. He felt a single hand wrap it’s hard, bony fingers around his collar, and pull him into the weeds and thorns.
Timmy was waiting at the shop for 11 minutes in total, before he got bored. He had eaten his ice-cream already, and was still licking the melted liquid off his fingers when he returned to where he left Ben. He called him out several times, before jumping over the rail. He found his brothers phone in the grass. This must have been what he was looking for. He made his way past the brambles and stinging nettles, and towards the opening of the woods, that lay still like the mouth of a monster, waiting for animals to stray too close. No-one went this way, but maybe this is where he would find his brother.
This story is based on a dream I had when I was 6 or 7, which I have remembered ever since. It shook me to my core when I first had it, but I think it holds some interesting interpretations. If you have an idea of what you think it might mean, I would be ecstatic to chat about it in the comments.