Into the Woods
The truth is: all of us have a past. It’s made up of memories not events. It’s how we deal with events in different ways, forming different memories, which make us unique.
I was having to remind myself of all these points as Cait tried to persuade me into Crombister Woods. She’d been trying for the best part of a month. Sometimes she was subtle about it, casually mentioning a strange birdcall she’d heard or tracks she wasn’t able to identify. She knew how much I’d loved wildlife.
Other times, like now, she was just brutal.
“You’ve been moping around long enough. I’m fed up with excuses. I haven’t heard one good reason not to go out there. It’s meant to be haunted, you know?”
I knew the story but let her tell it anyway. I listened to the tale of the poor squire who’d been thrown from his horse and died. It was rubbish. Even in the heights of the feudal days, there hadn’t been a squire for fifty miles. Why would one have ended up in the ancient, but very small, Crombister Woods?
“Fine,” I interrupted her story. “I’ll go.”
I didn’t really want to go, but Cait had stuck with me long enough. She deserved something in return. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Crombister Woods, I just didn’t like anywhere.
The words had no sooner left my mouth than Cait snatched up my coat. She pushed it at me and began raiding the kitchen cupboards in the search for ‘rations’. What she meant was chocolate. Sure enough, she stuffed her pockets full of anything which carried the word choc on the wrapper and dragged me out the house.
It wasn’t far to Crombister Wood. I would have walked but she insisted on taking her little Landrover. I didn’t like cars. Not since the accident. But the sun was going to set soon and, although the gloaming was stunning at this time of the year, very little of its light would reach us in the wood.
“Are you nervous?” she asked teasingly.
“No. Should I be?”
“Going into the woods at midsummer. A bit spooky, isn’t it?”
I gave her the benefit of a smirk but didn’t say anything.
The suspension in the rickety vehicle left me with an ache before I’d even started walking, but it also meant I was pleased to get out. Crombister Wood was not large, only about a dozen hectares, but it had been carefully managed by the estate as they realised its supposed ghost could entice people there. Cait was the head groundskeeper for it, the first woman had been given such a position on the estate. She was good at it too.
“Can you remember where the cabin is?” she asked, pulling on a backpack.
“I’ll meet you there. I’ve just got to check-in with the estate. Some of those gamekeepers get a little bit trigger-happy. I’d rather they knew we were here.”
“See you there,” I muttered, setting off into the woods.
This was the first time I’d been out in the wilds since the accident; the first time I’d allowed myself to view anything but the walls of my own house and garden. The sudden expanse which opened out from me was frightening, but the trees held me close as I stepped into their embrace.
No, it was good to be back. At least I told myself this every time I slipped off the path, or a wayward limb from one of the ancient giants brushed against my head. I apologised each time it happened, as though I expected the trees to understand.
“You the one she mentioned?” asked a young voice, but the light in the woods was too poor to see anyone.
“Yeah, we’re just spending the night.”
“Don’t worry. It doesn’t last forever.”
My imagination, surely, but wasn’t he at the other side last time he spoke?
The boughs of the tree closest to me creaked as though there was a gale to move them, but the air was still. It wasn’t quiet, though. The woods, which during the day curled in on themselves, seemed to be coming alive. There were gentle sounds of pattering feet, shuffling in the undergrowth, and rustling in the treetops.
At first, I was afraid. I ran, tripping and skidding. But then I heard that voice again. Was its owner following me, or had I run a full circle?
“Settle down. I want to help you.”
“Help me?” I scoffed, trying to maintain a grip on my senses. No one ever told me to settle down.
I’d gone mad, that must have been it. I leaned back on the trunk of one of the sturdy ash trees and hugged my arms around one of its sprawling limbs. Unlike the people I’d met since the accident, it didn’t judge me as I wept onto its yellow-green bark. It even felt like it was hugging me back.
Relieved to have a supportive listener, I spoke of my past and my memories, of self-recrimination, fear and desperation. Leaves ruffled against my hair, soothing like a mother’s hand, and I heard the comforting sound of the unfelt breeze as the tree sighed in sympathy. After savouring this exchange for more time than I could keep track of, I stood up straight.
“Thank you,” I breathed, setting my hand on its colossal arm. I laughed at myself as I realised I was talking to a tree, but it didn’t stop me from setting my hand against the branches or trunks of the trees I walked past.
“Where have you been?” Cait demanded as I reached the cabin. She looked confused as I smiled across at her, clearly not expecting to see such a gesture on my features. “I was about to call a rescue party.”
“You’ll never guess who I found in the trees.” I didn’t know who had spoken to me, whether it was the gamekeeper, the ghostly squire, or the trees themselves. But I knew the person who had entered Crombister Wood was not the same one who had reached the cabin.
“Who was it?”
“Myself,” I laughed.