The Woods Are Deep

“The woods are deep, my child. They are deeper than they are wide, deeper than any map could show. If you go in there now, you will not come out yourself.”

We were afraid that Granny was getting dementia, and statements like that weren’t helping her case any.

“Granny, I’ve been in the woods loads of times. I’ve always come out myself.” I patted my chest as if to prove it to her.

Granny shook her head sadly. “The woods are at some times deeper than at others. Now is such a time.”

That was how my summer started, with those ominous words. Even at age eleven, I had the sense not to ask any follow-up questions. It wasn't tact, necessarily, but the desire to avoid a potentially awkward conversation. If Granny were ill, I didn't want to have to experience the symptoms first hand. Granny had given plenty of mysterious warnings to me in the past. Warnings about boys and what they want from girls. Warnings about the taxman and the g-men. But Granny had never said anything quite like this.

Of course, I had no intention of staying out of the woods. It was summertime, which meant unlimited freedom and exploration. The woods were not just a hundred acres of trees and rocks. No, they were a universe of secret lairs and hidden temples. The woods were anything and everything my pre-adolescent imagination could concoct. I may not have had many friends in those days, but I had kingdoms full of loyal subjects in the woods.

Every day that I was able, I spent in the woods. Sometimes my dad would have chores for me to do instead, but I still conspired to make it to that shady patch of oak trees anytime I could. I would pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a can of coke in my school bag and head out. I didn't see anything strange in the woods, and by the time July rolled around I had all but forgotten Granny's words of warning.

On one exceptionally hot day sometime after the fourth of July, I was helping my dad pick rocks out of the field. Picking up rocks was perhaps my least favorite activity in the world, and I couldn't understand why we did it. We didn't grow anything other than a few irritable cows, and surely they didn't mind a few rocks. My dad must have sensed my displeasure and took pity on me.

"Why don't you run off now, April. Go play in the woods until suppertime. Oh, and take your little brother with you."

The elation that came from my dad's first two sentences was sapped by his last one. My brother Tyler was only four years old and afraid of his own shadow. I could already picture it in my head: I'd be trying to save a village from a marauding dragon, and he'd be crying his eyes out over a bug he saw. I couldn't see it working very well, but I knew better than to argue with my dad, especially after he had given me a reprieve from rock-collecting.

I collected Tyler, though he did not particularly want to go, and led him to the winding game trail that cut through our woods. I thought that I might get him interested in catching crawdads in the creek while I busied myself with more important things.

Despite the intense sun of the day, the woods were dark and cool, with a few strands of light breaking through the dense oak canopy. I inhaled the familiar scent of earth and cedar, feeling completely at home. I tugged on Tyler's arm, urging him down the trail. I was anxious to get to the creek another half-hour's walk away.

"Are there snakes out here?" Tyler asked, his little voice trembling slightly.

"Don't be stupid. Of course, there's snakes out here."

"Dangerous ones?"

I shrugged. "Probably."

Tyler gripped my hand tightly and slowed his pace. I turned to face him and knelt down.

"No snakes are going to get you, okay? And no bugs, or nothing like that. I promise it's safe, okay?"

"But Granny said we shouldn't go in the woods. She said it was too dangerous for us."

I groaned. "Yeah, well, Granny says a lot of stuff, and Dad said to take you with me. So who are you going to listen to?"

Tyler's eyes widened, and his bottom lip trembled slightly. He whispered "Dad" so quietly that I almost couldn't hear him, but it was enough for me to start walking again.

We made it to the creek in near record time, a small miracle given the small human-shaped ball and chain I was dragging. I had big plans for the patch of cedars near the creekside--it was just begging to become a magical fortress hideaway. I set Tyler up at the pleasantly burbling creek, with instructions to catch seventeen crawdads before we could go home. My eleven year-old math told me that was the perfect number to ensure at least an hour of uninterrupted time to myself. I left him there alone while I walked the few yards to the cedar stand. I stopped and listened, making sure that I could hear him if something were to happen.

I was caught up in my imaginary world almost instantly. So intently focused was I on rearranging the cedar boughs and clearing space for my castle hideaway, that I didn’t even notice the passage of time. Eventually I began to note the lengthening shadows and golden light of late afternoon. That couldn’t be right, could it? That meant that hours must have passed, but surely Tyler would have been yelling for me to take him back home by now.

“Tyler?” I called out. I stood up in the cedar stand and listened. He made no response. And more than that, I noticed that the woods around me were absolutely quiet and still. Gone was the ever present gurgle of the creek. No birds sang, and I couldn’t even hear the sound of the wind among the tree branches. Just the suffocatingly loud silence.

“Tyler!” I cried and ran the few yards back to the creek. Guilt and nausea enveloped me. If something had happened to him, and it was my fault...I couldn’t even stomach the thought.

I was simultaneously relieved and puzzled when I broke through the cedars to the bank of the creek. I had expected to find no one, but Tyler was there, squatting in the middle of the silently flowing water staring blankly ahead. “Tyler? Tyler, what’s going on.”

He didn’t respond, didn’t turn to look at me. “Tyler, it’s not funny! I’ll tell Dad how you scared me!”

I approached him in the creek, reaching my hand out for his shoulder. His head turned slowly around to the side to face me. His eyes were wide and his round face had gone ghostly pale.

“April,” he said in a deeper monotone than his four year-old throat should be able to produce. “April, she’s out here. She’s out here with us.”

I felt a chill run down my spine.

“Let’s go, Tyler. Let’s get home.” I grabbed his hand roughly and pulled him to his feet. I didn’t want to scare him, but I had to get us both out of the woods. We half ran, half walked along the game trail, slowing down periodically for Tyler to catch his breath and rest his short legs. Finally, he stopped all together.

“Tyler, come on! You can rest when we get home.”

He didn’t respond, only shook his head slowly and pointed his chubby finger to a spot ahead of us on the trail.

I sat down to his level and looked to where he was pointing. The trail curved around a rock outcrop, draped almost entirely in darkness by the early evening shadows. I had passed this spot so many times that I had it virtually memorized, but there was it. I squinted, trying to discern what was different.

Then I saw it, there in the shadows where two boulders joined. It was a figure, dark and nearly invisible in the fading light. It looked at first like a person sitting down with its knees drawn up to its chest, but that wasn’t quite right either.

I pulled Tyler close to me. As I sat wondering if it had seen us, wondering if we could escape into the woods undetected, it stood from its crouching position. I could see it clearly then, and I knew Tyler could too. He grabbed ahold of my hand more tightly, but remained silent.

The thing in front of us was not a person, at least not in any way that I recognized. It had the general appearance of a woman from the waist up. Bright white, unkempt hair crowned a large, flat face from which peered out two large yellow saucer eyes. She cradled in her arms what looked at first to be the remains of a coyote, but the bloody collar in the woman’s claws indicated that it was a pet dog. I realized then that we had interrupted her feeding. The sight of her blood-smeared face made my breath catch in my throat, and I could feel hot tears begin to well up in my eyes.

She cast the animal carcass aside and moved toward us with a painfully slow deliberation. Her movements were unnaturally stiff and jerky. I immediately saw why. Though she was taller than my dad, she moved on legs far too short for her torso, no more than a foot and a half in length, and her too-long arms swayed limply beside her lank body. I stumbled backward, pulling Tyler along with me.

We backed down the trail as the thing approached. I moved my head back and forth, looking for an escape route in the dense vegetation around us, all while keeping an eye on her advancing form. Seeing a break in the bushes next to a fallen log, I roughly pulled Tyler through the brambles and off the game trail. Under the cover of vegetation I crouched, listening intently for the approach of whatever was out there. All I could hear was my own blood thrumming through my ears and the soft, barely perceptible whimpers coming from Tyler.

We stayed squatting like statues in the bushes for what felt like hours. I could feel my muscles tense and ache from the position, and I knew Tyler must have been in pain as well. I knew that we could not stay in the woods too much longer. Soon it would be completely dark, and whatever that thing was, we had no chance of escaping it once the sun had set.

I turned to Tyler and put my finger to my lips. He nodded, his eyes wide and rimmed with red from silently crying. I held his hand in mine, and together we began to slowly crawl through the bushes. The going was slow, due to the sheer denseness of the vegetation. I knew we’d never make it staying in the bushes, not with branches snagging our clothes and thorn bushes tearing at our skin. I planned to avoid the trail until we had cleared the outcropping, then meet up with it again after. That way we could hopefully remain unseen but still make it home before dark.

My plan had worked well up to a point. As we skirted the outcropping, I was relieved to see that no figure stood among the shadows. It looked as it always had: spheres and crags of granite, covered in lichen and moss. I sighed deeply and closed my eyes. In just a few more steps, we’d be clear of it and could run down the trail the rest of the way.

I tightened my grip on Tyler’s hand, urging him forward toward the trail. I paused and looked through the woods. There was nothing. No movement. No sound. I dropped Tyler’s hand and cautiously stepped onto the worn dirt of the game trail. I motioned for Tyler to follow behind. We ran. We ran as fast and as hard as we could. I cast regular glances back at Tyler and slowed my pace when he fell behind. I wished I was strong enough to carry him.

I could see the break in the woods up ahead, where our pasture slowly segued into our back yard. I couldn’t help but run faster, not with safety so close. I could practically feel the sunlight on my face when I heard Tyler call out behind me.

He had stumbled and was crying in a heap on the ground. I was so focused on getting back to him that I didn’t notice the movement in the shadows until it was too late. As I reached Tyler, the long-armed thing emerged from the darkness along the trail. She smiled at me, the dried rust-colored blood on her face cracking as she did so. I’ll admit, I froze in fear, completely transfixed. She walked toward us while we sat there, in that same awful jerking gait.

I could hear my heart pounding as she reached her clawed finger toward Tyler. That’s what snapped me back to reality, to the danger before us. I grabbed him and pulled him up as she raked a single finger down the back of his shirt.

She followed us as we fled, and though I did not turn around to look at her, I could feel her warmth at my back. We made it to the edge of the woods, and I shoved Tyler forward, out into the last dying rays of sunlight. As I moved to join him, I felt a sharp pain in my calf. The creature had lunged at me and ran her claw down the length of my leg. I could see a line of blood forming there as I kicked her away and stumbled out of the woods.

I pulled Tyler a safe distance from the woods, and held him as we both looked back at the figure retreating into the dense darkness there.

The rest of the walk home was short, and I spent it convincing Tyler that he must not tell anyone about what we saw there. I couldn’t imagine how much trouble I’d be in if anyone found out, and beside, I thought, who would believe us?

As we approached our house, Tyler looked up at me. “April? My back hurts.”

I lifted his shirt and saw that the thing had broken the skin with her claw. A small red welt was raised into Tyler’s skin beneath the ripped fabric of his shirt.

“It’s okay, Tyler. It’s just a scratch. You’ll be fine.”

“April? Don’t make me go into the woods again. Please.” I held him tightly and promised that I never would, as long as I lived.

When we got inside the house, Granny was sitting up in her recliner waiting for us. I tried to sneak past her, but she wouldn’t have it.

“April, come here.”

I obeyed, signaling to Tyler to go get cleaned up without me. “Yes, Granny?”

“Why are you so messy? Have you been in the woods?”

“Yes, Granny. But, we were just playing out there. We lost track of time is all.”

She stared at me intently.

“Child, what have you done? I warned you that the woods are dangerous now.”

I nodded, trying my best to look appropriately reprimanded.

She continued. “There’s another world, child. It’s like our own, but not our own. It has its own rules, and sometimes, when everything aligns just so, it sends its people across. I hope, more than anything, that you never encounter such a person.” She rocked unsteadily in her recliner and focused her eyes on mine.

“Child, these other people, they’re not like us. They’re vengeful and powerful. And once they’ve marked you, you theirs forever. Once they’ve felt you, once they’ve tasted your blood, there is no escape.”

“Mother!” my dad bellowed from the doorway. “You’re scaring April with your nonsense.” He turned to me. “Go get cleaned up for supper, kiddo. And, mother, please don’t fill their heads with that stuff.”

That was fifteen years ago. I never went back into the woods. Not after that.

Tyler died at age sixteen. He was the passenger in a car driven by his best friend Jason. Jason had been driving along a dirt road through the woods when he suddenly swerved into a tree. Tyler died on the way to the hospital, the EMTs said. He had spoken just once, painfully moving his broken jaw to say “April, she’s out here with us.” They asked me if his last words meant anything to me, and I said they didn’t.

I talked to Jason at the hospital. He couldn’t stop crying and apologizing. The nurses said he kept asking if the lady was okay. They were puzzled, since there was no lady at the scene.

“I’m so sorry, April. I didn’t mean for it to happen. There was this woman, just standing in the road. This white-haired lady. I was just trying to avoid her. April, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

I don’t hold Jason responsible. I know it wasn’t his fault. It was her fault. And mine. I let her mark Tyler. I let her mark me.

And now, I wait.