The Thing in the Woods

A rare piece of standalone short fiction.

Art by Tomislav Jagnjic. Yes, all of these titles are real. - Album on Imgur

One day I went wandering, and as the sun got low in the sky, and the clouds turned stormy over my head, I found myself at the edge of the woods.  In clear need of shelter and with no means to build my own, I ventured in.  The dark had only just fallen when I was beset upon by wolves.  They ran me down and bit into my flesh and tore my bleeding corpse apart.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

I returned to the forest’s edge, armed with wits and weapons, and when night fell, and the wolves again approached my camp, I shot the first of them dead, ending the chase before it began.

“You will come no closer!” I shouted after the remainder, confident I was heard, for I felt then the woods’ countless eyes upon me.  Alas, one pair of those eyes belonged to a brown bear, which wandered, hungry, into my campsite, undeterred by my shouts and gesticulations.  My first shot barely wounded it, and I did not get another.  It mangled my shoulder with a swipe of its claw and, biting into my chest, slammed me into a tree until my skull shattered.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

When next I returned to those woods, I brought with me others as eager as I to conquer the brutality of that place.  We came well-prepared with tools and traps and, of course, our firepower, and on account of our numbers–or perhaps the noise we made in our conversation or careless trudging–the wolves did not bother us at all.  It was not until the third night that we came upon another bear, its leg caught in one of the traps we had cunningly placed at the perimeter of our day’s patrol.  Incensed by pain, the beast attempted to charge us, but restrained as it was, it perished in a hail of bullets before crossing even half the way.

My companions and I were in good spirits then, for we had conquered the monster.  The things in the woods–we believed–were no longer any threat to us.  But come morning, we realized a new worry: In our trek into this place, we had taken scant inventory of the movements of the sun above, for it had been obscured by branches and far from the forefront of our minds.  We had little idea of where we were, and there, three days’ journey of indeterminate direction into the undergrowth, we had little idea of how to return.  Moreover, as the days passed, as our aimless wandering brought us no closer to anything we’d seen before, it began to grow colder, and the number of beasts about seemed to dwindle.  And as our supplies grew sparse and our worries thrived, I began to feel more and more as if I were being watched.

It was not an animal–of that I was sure–for I had grown cognizant of the ways in which their presences intruded upon ours.  Rather, it seemed as if the forest itself was watching, laughing, licking its thorny lips in anticipation of the fate which imminently awaited our arrogance.  Such a fate did seem to be waiting, after all: It seemed we would likely starve and succumb to the cold within the week.

I did not starve, though.  Instead, I awoke one night to my companion standing over me, hefting an axe and grinning madly.

“We’re all just animals, aren’t we?  Eating to survive?” he cried out, as much to himself as to me, and brought the axe down.  Not exactly an illuminating thought, I noted as my head split open.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

While I had been glad of my companions in my previous life, it was clear to me that in difficult times, their presence would turn to liability.  So the next time I ventured into the woods, I did so alone, seeking not to conquer their brutality but, rather, their austerity.

Searching closely this time among the boughs and brush for floral details my foregone predatory inclinations might have overlooked, I came upon a bush laden with red berries which were tart to the taste.  I tasted them, then ate my fill, satisfied with my find, but that night I found my bowels so inflamed that when the wolves came, I could scarcely defend myself, and they feasted happily on my viscera.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

Subsequently, I avoided those berries, but, determined to find some sort of sustenance that might supplement my stores in the colder months, I continued to seek out the marginalia which I had previously ignored, accumulating a wide variety of brown mushrooms, white mushrooms, black mushrooms, herbs, fruits, roots, and saps, nearly all of which–I discovered over as many lifetimes–brought about my death in some fashion.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

Much time thereafter, having amassed some knowledge–still hardly sufficient–of survival in those woods, I found myself despairing of my mission, for I could see only more death resulting from further effort.  It was in this state that I spotted, between the thick branches which saturated the forest’s depths, a small shack, firelight in its window and smoke rising from its chimney in tentative wisps.  Bewildered but heartened by the discovery, I approached and rapped on the door.  A disheveled woman answered.

“I beg you: help me,” I said.  “I have searched many years and paid uncountable cost with precious little to show for it.”

“Why do you search?” she asked.  Her face was dull.  Her eyes were wild.  I told her:

“I seek the wisdom to conquer this place.”

“Hmph,” she grunted.  “You are not of this place, then, are you?”

Not waiting for an answer, she invited me in and gave me a bowl of stew which I found hearty and pleasant, though I did not recognize the roots and meats therein.

“It is clear you know much of these woods,” I said.  “Would you do me the kindness of sharing what you have learned?”

“I know these woods.  I fear these woods.  I am a creature of these woods,” she replied.  “I inhabit the shadows between the trees.  I fear those shadows.  I recoil from them in awe and horror.  But you have been away too long, and you have forgotten what casts them.”

“I am not afraid of the dark!” I protested.  “I merely wish to be prepared for what stalks it.”  She cackled:

“You should fear it!  You stalk the dark–you are a beast!  The beasts that survive learn to fear!”

At this, I began to notice a blackening at the edge of my vision and a sharp pain in my stomach, and the old woman donned a crown of bone and antlers which, I realized, had hung on her wall since I entered.  Unable to move, I could only watch as she drew a knife and carved my heart from my chest, and in that moment, I felt what I imagined was an inkling of the horror she had described.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

I reentered the woods immediately, retracing my steps through the brush with new fervor.  It felt then like anger, perhaps righteous indignation that the hag should so betray a traveler seeking aid, but I still retained enough presence to recognize the unsettled, writhing terror beneath it.  The poison and bones and antlers, the darkness that surrounded the woman had rattled me, and I was driven now to respond in the only way I knew.  I came again upon the witch’s shack and crashed through her door and battered her skull to a pulp with the butt of my rifle, and then, my racing heart assuaged that the threat had receded, I went about gathering what I had come for.

I scoured her shelves for wisdom in whatever form: parchments, recipes, jars of ingredients wet and dry that I might recognize, memorize, harness.  I found it, so very much of it, and I spent what felt like lifetimes there in that shack, absorbing what the old woman had been.  I brewed her potions and cooked her stews, and when I had no more of her ingredients left, I went out and gathered them anew, each from a dark and invariably unsettling place.  A day arrived when I sat in that ragged cabin, harrowed and manic and at last satisfied that I had conquered the fierce shadows of those woods, and on that day, I was shaken to attention by a hammering at my door.

I opened it to find an unruly mob, stereotyped to the last man with torches and pitchforks, who wasted no time on pleasantries and attempted immediately to force their way through.  Holding them back for only a moment, I beheld the contents of my shack in the woods–the scattered parchments, the cauldron bubbling with flesh lumps of unsavory origin, the string of dried human hearts I had “gathered” in my most recent foray outside, and, of course, the seven-foot-tall man with the head of a deer who had been with me since I came to this place–and realization overtook me.

“Perhaps I let this all go too far,” I remarked to the deer-headed man as the mob finally overpowered me and burst through the door.  They tied a noose around my neck and dragged me outside.  The deer-headed man followed.

“I think not,” he called after me, a hollow, guttural echo reverberating between the trees.  “You did not go far at all.  You simply fell into a trap.”

As a woman tied my rope taut to a branch, I called back:

“Are you actually talking to me?  Do deer throats even make those sounds?”  I saw him shrug, but at that moment the woman kicked the block out from under my feet, and the snap of my neck cut the conversation short.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

When next I came upon the forest’s edge, I paused, reflecting on the traps I had stumbled upon in my past lives.  Behind me in the light, humanity had spread fearless and far, erecting towers of metal and stone, and now there was little left beside the metropolis, its controlled, sub-rural gaps, and, of course, the woods, still dark, inexorable, frighteningly constant and yet faded, it seemed, from every human attention but mine.  I was still drawn there, but it occurred to me that the injury which so drove me before now barely ached.  Once I had thought to prove myself better than this place, but now, my inferiority a foregone conclusion, I found myself at the edge of the woods all the same.

I was afraid, I realized.  Afraid, of course, of the woods, that I should enter and again be so thoroughly consumed, but that fear which so struck me then lay not before me.  It was behind me, what I fled, the metropolis, the sterile nauseam of “progress” shepherded by system, by vast presences of voltage and industry which needed no longer hide in the shadows between the trees.  They hungered like the woods, would gladly swallow me if I stepped back through their shining gates, but I knew that if I decided to fight back, to rebuff the paper teeth that gnawed my soul, those presences would vanish into aether, and the only blood on my fists would be that of people, innocent of–incapable of understanding–the horrors they comprised.

The presence between the trees, though, offered me a certain courtesy.  It offered me an opponent.

“Escape to the Great Outdoors!” blared a sanitized imitation of a woman’s voice, resonating, discordant, across the woods’ threshold, distorted by trees and what sounded like rattling, corroded tin.  “Exclusive Travel Packages Available Today!”

I was of course uninterested in such an offer, but I had a notion that, in actuality, none was being made to me.  Intrigued, I crossed into the trees.  It was not long before I came upon a clearing, and at its center I found the source of the strange advertisement.

Standing there in the afternoon sun, motionless but hunched, as if paused, hesitating before its next step in a hopeless shuffle forward, was a bizarre and uncanny creature.  It loomed over me, fifteen, perhaps twenty feet tall, with a body resembling an emaciated–perhaps mummified–corpse, overgrown and infested with roots, branches, debris, and a winding, itinerant thread of barbed wire.  The corpse-giant had no head, but where its neck ought to have been, a metal pole jutted from its flesh, wreathed by two strands of electrical cable.  Atop the pole, the wires attached to a pair of siren horns, fastened at asymmetrical heights over the creature’s left and right shoulders.  Its stance was wide, no doubt due to the precarious balance offered by its semi-skeletal legs, and its arms hung lifeless in front of it.

It stood oblique to me, “facing” the woods to my left, but though I found its countenance quite unsettling and feared the consequence of making myself known, I could not help but query:

“Didn’t I read about you on the internet?  You’re someone’s scary story!  You’re a product of civilization!  Why are you out here in the woods?”  With a screech of feedback, the creature’s sirens blared to life.

“Face your fears for a better life!” imported the static-ridden voice of a hip-and-with-it everyman.  “Ask your doctor if Phobilify is right for you!”  Then, with a shudder, the creature turned to face me, taking three halting–and yet somehow violent–steps.  I stared into its faceless, industrial visage, curiosity only barely overcoming my terror, and considered whether I ought to turn and run.

The reaction which instead emerged from my gut was a hysterical giggle, which I quickly suppressed, clamping a hand over my mouth.  But the thought behind it remained: It was ridiculous, wasn’t it?  I knew these woods, knew to fear them, knew that to face them risked my life and my sanity.  I could lie.  I could admit to an astounding lapse in judgment which brought me here, face to face with the darkness in its own home.  But I would not.  I knew, this time, I would not.  I wanted to gaze into the darkness, to see in it not the meaningless void which humanity saw in the woods but something else–something shifting and unknowable–which I hoped, with all I was, still lived in my own heart as well.

And it was funny!  This electo-cryptid before me, this thousandth face of the ineffable thing in the woods, sounding its mockeries, its empty calls for monetizable attention–it was laughing!  And I had a sense, a hopeful suspicion, that it was laughing with me and not at me.

So I stood there, defiant, terrified, giggling, as the siren-headed thing lurched, seized me in its dry, slender fingers, crushed my ribcage in its grip, and though I died, defeated utterly once again by this thing that lived here in the woods, I realized amidst the rush of air from my chest that, somehow, I no longer felt trapped.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

It was many years before I again spoke with the thing in the woods, though in that time my demeanor toward it softened.  I did not abandon my forays beyond civilization; rather, I renewed my vigor, seeking with every opportunity the uneasy solitude I found among the trees, tolerating–or perhaps embracing–the uncertainty of survival which came with it.  I had cultivated a healthy awe for the forces whose sway I navigated there and a healthy fear for the gaze I felt upon me in the night, but even so I was surprised to eventually find others like myself in that place.  We were few, and it took years–lifetimes, even–for us to find communion there, but I was not alone.  There were rare others who found that strange comfort in the unknown’s hungry embrace, who were as well deeply unsettled by the monolithic indifference offered by their fellow men amidst the cities and the streets.  

Together, we were resilient to the forest’s caprice, and in time, we ceased departing it altogether.  We found a clearing–perhaps the same clearing where I had perished to the siren-headed beast, though I could not be certain–and built a town, snug amidst the trees, and we thrived there, going about our lives–and the lives after those and the lives after those–until one day, a man strode in from the woods, hefting a shabby briefcase up to my doorstep.  His breath smelled of charcoal, his shoes worn but uncannily pristine, his perfectly greased hair clashing nauseously with the threadbare, burgundy suit hanging loose on his frame.  He was a traveling salesman, he explained.

“Traveling from where?” I asked.

“Oh, ya’know, hereabouts, thereabouts.  Th’important thing’s what I’m bringin’ to ya, though!”  He knelt and balanced the case on his knee, undoing the clasps as he flashed his plastic smile, and just then, behind his dead eyes, I saw something writhe.  I knew what would be in the case.  I knew it would be like a faraway shelter, simple, familiar in its use, eerily out of place.  It would have some hidden, darker side, a sordid history perhaps, or an old, dusty curse of which the salesman would relay only the slightest rumor.  It would compel me to cling to it, press past the ill fortune it would seem to bring until, finally, the mystery of its existence dangling, tantalizing before me, I would be devoured.  I would almost certainly die, I knew, but it would not be before I tasted the narcotic brine of the unknown, the fear, the horrible something which I had always truly sought.

I knew what would be offered, so I met the man’s stare, looked past him, gazed again upon the thing in the woods whose shadow twisted behind his eyes.  And with the case’s last clasp still fastened, I preempted:

“I’ll take it.”

Top Image: yo bro is it safe down there in the woods? yeah man it’s cool, by Tomislav Jagnjic. I do not own it.

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