It was never his idea to go to the wood. It was never his idea to do anything. He was at the back of the pack; he knew where he stood. There were six of them in all. Kev, Spiker, Fuller, Bogs, Zoods, and then him: Arnold.
They were all town boys but Kev had begun to push against it. He had taken to watching Bear Grylls. No more darts down the pub. Instead he bought himself a compass. He stole a book on local hikes from the library. He actually read it.
“I found a trail in Rawling’s wood,” he informed them. “Maybe six miles.”
“Six miles,” Spiker had groaned. “Fuck.”
That was Spiker. He always came along but he made you regret it.
Arnold’s emotions were ambivalent. Part of him longed for the outdoors. But most of him feared it. That was his Granny’s fault.
“It’s them woods killed your mum,” she told him. “She went in dandy and come out a sandwich short of a picnic. Nattering on about some water witch. Said it was she who caused your….your….” She had stopped here, flushed red. “I am sorry, pet, really I am.”
On Sunday morning, they caught the bus. Spiker had a bandana tied around his head. He looked like an idiot. Zoods told him so. Spiker punched him in the gut and Zoods doubled over, coughing up gobs. Nobody said a word after that. In fact the whole bus went quiet, as though the other passengers—a gran with blue hair and an old fellow with piss-marks on his trousers in the shape of a giraffe—couldn’t wait for them to get off.
At Farthing Way they alighted, shoving each other down the steps. They were in the country. The road was narrow, the plants growing high on the edges, lace trimmed. If the color green had a smell, this was it. The sun, when not obscured by a cloud, was hot. In front of them was a break in the hedgerow. There was a wooden signpost with an arrow on. To Farthingman Wither, it said.
“We follow the arrows.” Kev was all business. They set off. Cows stood mutely grazing, their tails swishing backwards and forwards. Every now and again one would adjust said tail and a great pile of dung would slither out. Arnold kept his eyes on the ground. His neck prickled in the sun.
The wood started at the end of the field. The light danced around their feet. The trees were all different; some even had mushrooms growing out of them. They walked and walked. The others, as usual, made a lot of noise. Never Arnold. But he was happy that way. Our shadow, Kev sometimes called him. An hour in, Kev stopped. They all sat on some rocks, pulled out their water bottles.
“Alright then, Captain?” Fuller asked, as Kev squinted up at the canopy above, but no one heard the answer because right then Zoods avenged himself against Spiker for his former grievance by tackling him in some bracken. This caused a right real hubbub, and when it was all over, Spiker had won—again. They walked on.
Forty minutes later, Kev stopped. “Anyone seen any arrows,” he asked and they all shook their heads because they hadn’t, nor had then been looking. Trees stretched in every direction. Kev opened the map. “Bollocks,” he said.
We could just go back, Arnold thought. But when he turned around the path had disappeared. “Fellas, look,” he tried to say but as usual his voice was harpooned in his throat.
“I’ll go up ahead,” Kev said. “Get my bearings. You lot stay here, got it?”
They all agreed. Zoods lay down, his backpack under his head. Bogs pulled a beer from his, tossed another one to Spiker. “Arnold?” he asked but Arnold shook his head. He felt strange. Like he was in a dream. The trees were creeping him out. The leaves were all different, even on the same branch. Was that even possible?
Bogs and Spiker finished their beers, set the cans up on rock. They took turns throwing stones at them. Zoods was sleeping, his eyeballs agitated behind his lids.
“I might head back,” Arnold said. They ignored him. They were a lot of things, his mates—pillocks, tossers, wankers—but not mind-readers. He set off in the direction they had come. After ten paces he could no longer hear the others, so he turned around, and sure enough, they had vanished.
He should have been afraid but he wasn’t. He walked on. After a while, the ground began to rise, a rock formation loomed ahead. Between two boulders, ancient stone stairs lead into a dell. He heard water below. His lips were sticky with thirst. He headed down.
At the bottom, a stream cascaded down the rocks. He knelt and leant out over the current. The water was freezing. He scooped it into his palm, drank, drank.
“Taketh thee this water which is mine own blood?”
He jerked around. A girl was sitting on a rock behind him, her bare feet in the stream. Her body was covered in duckweed, her hair liquid.
She’s pretty, he thought.
The girl trembled and then just like that she was right in front of him. How had she moved so quick? The water sluiced off her cheeks, rolled down her shoulders. He could see her breasts, her nipples, curved and as sharp as rose thorns. Her eyes roved over him.
“Speak, stranger,” she said.
He shook his head.
“Speak,” the girl demanded, and the shadows fell around him. Then the girl laughed. “What has’t thee in thy throat? A fly perhaps, or a centipede, a spider?”
I was born like this, he wanted to tell her. I make no sound, but the girl was reaching up her white hand. She cupped his chin. Her palm was as cold as the stream. She uncurled a long white finger, reached into his mouth. He gagged, but he could not move. Her finger rooted down his throat, deep into his neck.
“I feel the wee bodikin now,” she said and with that her nail jerked, he felt a quick ripping pain and then she was holding something in front of his face, a tiny wriggling thing.
“What is it?” The words came tumbling out, rough, unfamiliar. He clapped his hand over his mouth. The girl laughed again.
“Thee wee bad gent,” she murmured into her hand. “Thou was’t stolen once but now I has’t recov’r’d thee. But reparation will be made.” And she pressed the bloody little creature against her lips, then tossed him over her shoulder into the stream.
She really is pretty, Arnold thought stupidly, with her thorny bosoms and bone white skin. But so cold. His heart ached for her. He untied his hoodie. “Take this,” he said.
The girl vanished but then he saw she had appeared again on the far side of the river, drenched. The hoodie hung dripping like a dead animal from her hand. She looked cross.
“A gift demandeth a gift,” she hissed, and she lifted the hoodie, shook it, and her voice became a torrent, a flood, racing towards him. “So go.”
Arnold went. The higher he climbed, the faster his heart beat, the fear inside waking up. The light seemed different. Had the sun sunk in the sky? And what reparation? He thought of Rip van Winkel, his monstrous new world, and of his own broken mother. Then to his relief, there was the footpath, and he saw the gang,
“You stupid fuck! Where you been?” yelled Spiker.
“I was looking for the way out,” Arnold said, and his new voice scraped out of his throat.
The world stopped. They all crashed into him like a herd of buffalo.
“You tosser, you can speak!”
“Say something, say something!”
“I think we should get the hell out of here,” he said, and for once their combined wills worked in unison. They grabbed their packs, and then, like that, they were all running, trainers pounding down the path. Arnold ran at the back, his breath noisy in his throat. But even as he fled, he saw he had not made it out unscathed. Time had not moved on, his sanity was intact but still she had punished him, for he saw, clear as day, the future unfolding.
Zoods dead within a year in a motorbike crash.
Kevin, fast asleep in a hammock above some abyss in the Andes.
Bogs, fat and rich with two ex-wives.
Spiker writing a memoir while incarcerated at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.
Fuller at sixty, still living with his mum.
And him, Arnold, searching, always searching, for his bodikin, his lost silence, his quiet place in the world.
Sam Grieve was born in Cape Town, and lived in Paris and London prior to settling down in Connecticut with her husband and two sons. She graduated from Brown University, received an MA in English from King’s College, London, and has worked as a librarian, a bookseller and an antiquarian book-dealer. Her stories, essays and poems have appeared in A cappella Zoo, Daily Science Fiction, Forge, PANK, Silk Road Journal and Southern Indiana Review, amongst others. Her work received a Notable recognition in The Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2014, and she has been nominated for Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and a Pushcart Prize. She won the Broad River Review 2015 Rash Award for Fiction.
Artwork: Anna Dittmann, Freckle