Erlking

by David Mohan
(Ireland)

The woods round here are haunted.

That’s how it feels. I step in between the trees and a different atmosphere settles. A listening quiet. There is the light susurration as my feet pad on dead needles.

I walk between trees, thinking that the sound here is too muffled, the air too close to be a place outdoors. It feels more like a museum.

This wood stretches out in columns, each one equidistant from the next.

I stand still for a moment like a stag at a stream and listen to the wood throwing ripples of the sound I have made to disturb it.

I have come here with an acorn, a pebble, and a keepsake in the pocket of my scarlet jacket.

I step across a stream. I step over a fallen tree, ants teeming over its resinous carcass. I fight through a region of tangled briars. I leap a dug trench, wide enough to catch a bear. I disable light-woven trip wires.

I have come here in light of those who lost their kids in supermarkets, in light of kids wandered off near roads, across moors, waste ground, suburban car parks, service stations, runaways, in light of those lost from the streets because there was no-one else to notice.

There is not one bird call in this wood. Its shadows lengthen as a dusk falls in such a way that barely penetrates the grey light beneath these canopies.

How did he take you? What gifts did he offer? Cigarettes, chewing gum, a night in a hotel, a free ticket, some ready cash?

I walk on, feeling dead tired. The enchantment of the place is weaving its magic. Its grass is a snare to my lazy hare senses.

Soon, I see floating lights like fireflies, that duck and tease and disappear. Soon, I hear the wild lilt of a flute played somewhere far, somewhere near.

I am ready to lie down beside a tiny stream that sounds like sleep. I am ready to taste some berries that smell of dreams, when I hear the faintest murmur of birdsong. I press through a slender branched alder thicket, and discover a wide clearing. Here, someone has built a forest house and planted a garden. The house is a filthy moss-roofed shed, walled with a mottled screen woven of saplings. A spring gurgles in the centre of the clearing from a cloven green-stained rock. Its water is brownish-black and smells metallic. The grass it touches has shrivelled up.

All around, quiescent in their imprisonment, are cages with every sort of beast and bird you can imagine. I see foxes, bears, otters, squirrels, rabbits, magpies, sparrows, robins, wood thrushes. Barely a sound comes from any besides a jittery wren that will not stop its delicate murmur to itself.

I scent the air, waiting to meet my adversary. But not a leaf stirs in the clearing. I walk close to the wren’s cage.

The wren calls, ‘Quick, quick, before he returns, before the night falls, open each cage.’

I set to work. The cages fall open at my touch. Sleek bodies slink past or dart skyward. I leave not one living creature behind me.

We run back the way I came.

The dusk is a blue misty glow between the trees. I run blindly like a hunted deer.
Soon, I hear the boom of a voice. Erlking. He sounds like thunder in the mountains, or the burst of a melting river. The words he utters blur together. I can hear only rage and hunger.

Then, I hear a loud skitter behind me like a boar breaking cover from the underbrush. I hear a gale breaking through the woods behind me. A gust that smells of the grave blows the blue wood mist in ribbons and serpents around my racing feet.

The king of these woods is coming after me.

I reach into the pocket of my scarlet jacket and take hold of the acorn. I throw it over my shoulder. Soon, I hear the crack of roots and stems breaking through earth and rock. I look behind and see an immense thicket has grown like a wall behind me. It is as wide as the past and as big as forgetting. The king of the wood howls and beats against the other side of it.

Soon, I hear a great tearing aside of thorns and branches. I know then that he has found a way through. I run on, reaching into my pocket again.

I fling the pebble over my shoulder.

This time I hear a great breach opening in the earth as though a meteorite had fallen out of the sky and into the wood. I look behind and see a great chasm has opened behind me, as deep as death itself and beyond maps.

Soon, I hear a great scrabbling and scraping and know that the forest king has been to the very bottom of that darkness and come back again. I see him now, quite close, as fast as a wolf at my heels, his black beard tangled and filthy as a magpie’s nest.

I reach into my pocket one last time and pluck out a cheap plastic miniature toy dog. It was the only thing of yours I kept when you disappeared. I could never bear to throw it away. It has been handled too much over the years, and most of its colour has worn away.

Now, when I throw it over my shoulder I hear a great howl behind me. I turn and see that a wolfhound is fighting with the king of the forest. They snap and snarl and bite and scratch. My wolfhound is as vicious as grief. His howls are as sharp as sorrow. Soon, there is a whimper and then a silence. The king rises from the ground, wiping blood from his mouth. The hound stays still. The hunt is on again.

Now, I can see the faintest glimmer of the last light of the day that indicates the end of the wood. The king rages on behind me. He is stuck to my heels as though he was my own shadow. On all sides, all the birds and beasts that I released are in flight around me. I race towards the limit of the wood alongside fox and bear, rabbit and snake-backed stoat. Owls, crows, hawks and bats fly alongside me at shoulder height.

I am seconds away from the end of the tree cover when I trip on a root and stumble. I fall to the ground and turn to see the king reach to clutch me back into his realm.

He snarls at me. The spittle of a fanatic sprays from his mouth. But before he can touch me a cloud of fur and feathers surrounds him. Each of them do their part. They snap and bite and peck at him until he throws up his hands.

While he is distracted I run out of the wood.

The chill of that northern atmosphere falls off me in a moment, as though I had stepped out of a mountain stream. I feel returned to myself again, and run down the slope.

All around me, transformed, stepping out of the tree cover, are ancient children—Hansels, Gretels, the lost, the disappeared, refugees.

Soon the place we stand in grows into a village square, a town, a city.

Suddenly, we are standing in a busy train station.

I look for your face in the crowd.


David Mohan is based in Dublin, Ireland, and writes poetry and short stories. He has been published in Gemini, Contrary, the 2010 Binnacle Anthology, Flash Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Opium and The Stinging Fly Anthology ‘Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails’. In 2011 he won first prize in the Gemini Poetry Open. He has won the Hennessy/ Sunday Tribune Poetry Award, as well as the 2008 overall New Irish Writer Award.


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