by David Mohan

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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