The sceptics will tell you that the woods of Wistman’s Grove are a myth, their howls no more a chorus of mummified voices than the wind through bare trees. Yet when travelling the roads beyond Clearbell, even the naysayers take the sinuous trail over the hills. Lest they disprove their own doubt.
Most believers are the old-timers, the ones who spin stories of disappearances and dark magic—stories that any folk brazen enough to pass into the mist don’t come out. Lose your way, lose your mind. Still, some folk try. Most lose their courage when the soil darkens beneath their boots and the singing of birds fades to the sounds of wild things with no name.
And then there’s some folk—some old and rare, crusty-eyed folk—who claim they’ve passed from one end of the woods to the other and lived to tell the tale. Most often it’s the senile ones who lounge with ancient bones in rocking chairs and speak gentle as the breeze on your ears. The details are always fuzzy, it seems—all happened so long ago. But they’ll lock eyes with you like they’d seen the devil and tell you, sure as you were born, them woods are haunted. “You ever get to that fork in the road,” they’ll whisper, “where the hills sink and the breeze chills your bones—you turn right ‘round and take the long road. Y’hear?”
I perch on the straightest bough amongst the tangle of tree limbs and peck at my feathers. They’re all ragged and I’m itching for a worm or a fat grub. Grubs are good eating when you can find one, but I’ll have no luck this evening; so I start tearing away the bark instead, picking at the rotted wood.
The cold’s yet to thaw. Clouds hide the stars and sheath the moon in smoke-like wisps. The mist that blankets the soil never lifts and the firmament remains frozen, ever poised to brighten but never doing so. If there is a sun, he never shows his face. Not here.
A twig breaks behind me. I turn my beak, expecting a mouse, maybe even one of the witch’s beasts sniffing for a scrap of meat. Nasty, brutish things, they are. Big too.
But a young man emerges from the fog, gazing at the trees as they shiver and sigh with a passing gust. He slinks along with eyes wide like a child, one hand on his hat, feeling his way forward with the other. His coat’s torn and his shoes are all muddied. Worry etches his brow. Regret. Loss. Same as I saw in the woman who came before him.
My master will want to know he’s here, if she doesn’t already. She won’t have him getting to the other side of the woods, and so I linger a minute and watch.
The man makes a funnel of his hands. “Charlotte,” he calls into the fog. His voice echoes back to him, unanaswered.
I watch as he takes the hat from his head, hangs it on a nearby branch to mark his path, and trudges on. He stops soon and clutches his chest like he’s hurting. The woods are changing him already; the reddish hue of his cheeks has faded, flushed by the faintest hint of green. He feels the back of his neck with fingers that are growing all twig-like, and finds the spot where the first leaf has sprouted. With a gasp, he plucks it and holds it out between a shaking thumb and forefinger. “What black magic is this?” he whispers.
I kick up my wings and swoop down. He flinches when I snatch the leaf away. With a quick turn, I settle down on a branch just beyond his reach. “Moonlight’s changing you already,” I tell him. “Don’t have long, my friend.”
He just stands there staring at me, puzzled-like. Stupid little man.
I spy the witch’s hut below, its rotted boards sagging and groaning like it wants to fall over. The window’s open. I glide in to the stench of smoky wax and old leather. A fire chatters in the hearth. My master sits in her worn chair by the table, and a crystal ball lays patiently before her. She’s an ugly old hag. A shock of white hair lies upon her arched back as she clasps her knobbly knees.
She takes a large, white marble from between her gums and pokes it into the empty socket of her left eye with the sound of a boot coming unstuck from the mire.
“I’ve been watching you, my little spy.” She wets the glass eye with several blinks. “What have you brought for me?”
My talons scratch across the table as I hold the leaf for her to take.
She snatches it, and with her good eye ogles every vein and contour, and then presses the leaf to her nostrils and inhales. “Youth . . . innocence . . . . Well preserved, often recalled.”
Her lips stretch back over yellowed teeth.
I watch as the witch drops the leaf into a mortar, adds a sprinkle of black powder, and grinds both into a paste. Her bones crack as she eases from the chair, over to the hearth where she tips the mixture onto the fire.
Colours coalesce in the flames, things you don’t see in the dreary grove. The hut around me fades. The table and the chair and the witch too. Next I know, I’m sinking into the memory as though it is a dream . . . .
Beyond the window of the man’s eyes, a watermill turns by the steady flow of a stream. The birds here are unlike me; they wear blue feathers and sing dainty little songs. I breathe the man’s breath and catch the scent of freshly clipped grass, and feel the cold brass ring in his palm as he turns it over and over. Feels heavy for such a tiny thing. No diamonds or pearls, just dull brass.
He stuffs it back into his pocket when he spots a lithe woman by the stream. She kneels and hums the bluebirds’ tune as she scours a Sunday dress. Rose oil wafts from her neck. Her ribbons of auburn hair curl like the gentle crest of a wave.
Charlotte. The name brings a tingle to the roots of my feathers.
Then the scene shifts, like the song has ended and a new one is beginning. A panoply of tools hang on the wall of a workshop, and the air is thick with sawdust and sweat. The man works with a rough slab of oak for a trestle table. The wood is unwieldy at first, but he shapes it to his will with an artisan’s touch. Calluses form on his palms as he carves two elegant crosses to brace the ends and a trident to brace the middle length. He affixes these with a large stretcher along the bottom, attached to two stretcher legs. He does not varnish the table, but favours a rustic veneer. When he is done, he invites the woman’s father to inspect the work.
The old man bends down and closes one eye to survey each edge and plane. He rises with a satisfied grunt, and slaps a hand across the man’s shoulder. “Edward m’boy,” he bellows. “You’ve won me over.”
Something warm bubbles in the man’s chest. It rises up and his limbs no longer ache with labour, until he feels he is almost floating.
The table sinks into the floor and the walls fall away. All the memory’s warmth recedes into the faint glow of the fire as embers dance up the flue.
“See what else you can fetch me,” the hag says. I can tell she liked it by the lust in her eyes and the weight of her breath. “And the young man, make sure he’ll lose his way . . . . I want to keep him.”
By the time I find Edward again, he’s leaning on a great big oak and swinging and swaying. Looks like he’s sick. With each staggered step his skin is greener, his limbs longer and more tendril-like. A leaf sprouts from the knot of his elbow, from the budding crown atop his head. A sparse patch grows upon his shoulders. The leaves soon wither and fall in a scattered trail behind him. And when the final leaf falls from the tip of his tallest branch, the final memory, the final piece of him—well, let’s just say every desiccated oak in the Grove stands as a nod to Edward’s fate.
One leaf, bright and green, catches my eye like a juicy insect, and I dive.
Edward curses again and shoos me away.
I land atop a bulbous root with the leaf in my beak and hop down in front of him. “You’re not turning around, kid? You might still make it back home before it’s too late.”
One of the witch’s pets howls in the distance. It’s already caught the smell of him, I’d bet.
His arms shoot up, ready to defend himself. “What’s that?”
“Something that wants you for dinner.”
He musters a handful of courage and croaks, “Where’s Charlotte? Tell me, you little devil, where is she?”
“How do you know she’s here?”
His brow wrinkles as he stumbles to pull a few fragmented thoughts back together. “We were . . . she ran away, and . . . . ” He shakes his head like it aches or as if he might suddenly wake up back in his old little town. He hopes he does. He won’t.
“You’re running out of time, Edward. You’re fading.” I lift a talon to the trunk of the tree before which I stand. Vestiges of a face remain in the wood: a bulging nose and the mouth like that of a wax figure left too close to the fireplace. Two hollow orbits filled with nothing but blackness stare out at him. At us.
“See what happened to this old hermit, lost his way? See how far he made it? Better turn back, my friend—while you still have something left.”
He won’t listen. Stubborn bastard. Stumbles away as though my words are poison.
My stomach churns empty, and the leaf brings a taste like mint and rosemary to my dry beak. I don’t think about grubs or moths. I think about sliding into the man’s world once more, about breathing fresh air and feeling the sun warm my back. I’m almost certain it’s too late for Charlotte, but not for him. If he makes it out, who knows, she might still be around in his mind. I figure it’s possible; some parts of her might still be there in the moments they shared together.
Catching up to him, I settle on a low branch. I try to stop myself from what I say next—the witch must be listening, the woods have ears—but like a damn fool I blurt it out anyway. “If you’re stupid enough to keep searching for her, you better start heading in the right direction.”
I’m getting soft. The hag’s going to get me for this, if her animals don’t. Pluck me, bone me, toss me in a stew and gobble me down. Throw the rest to the worms.
He looks to the silent path ahead and turns back to me. “Why should I trust you?”
He has a think about that.
I turn and flutter heavenward. I’ve said far too much already.
I enter the old hut through the window and she’s polishing her eye again. She pokes it back in the socket and hisses, “Give it to me.” She looks feverish now, like a rabid fox in the winter. Maybe she doesn’t know, maybe she does.
She snatches the leaf and catches its scent. “Love again . . . longing too. Something else . . . loss.”
She grinds the mixture with rasps of hungry breath. The moment the flames catch my eyes, I’m sinking again, down, down into the depths of Edward’s past.
Dappled light cuts through the trees that line one side of a majestic pasture. The gradual shifting of the earth has set the fences angled, and their edges lay untamed. Wildflowers give refuge to rabbits and frogs. All this seems quite perfect to the memory’s architect, and to Charlotte too, who stands beside him and warms his hand in hers.
The far side of the property slopes down to a stream, where silver fish frolic. She rests her chin on his shoulder, and the scent of cherries plays on her hair.
“We’ll herd goats here,” he announces. “Keep hens too. We’ll have all the fresh milk, cheese and eggs we need, and the hills will give us plenty of fowl and small critters to hunt.”
“Berries and pine nuts too, when the season’s right,” she adds.
He draws a breath of air that smells of fresh linen on the line. “Some years from now, the first trees of the orchard will be tall as you are.” He casts his hand through the air as a magician does, and evokes a forest of quinces and persimmons and a hammock strung between the tallest twins. And a house too, with its smoking chimney and windows that carry the bustle of a kitchen where his trestle table stands. They’ll have it all, he promises, just as soon as they can afford the lumber.
“Have you decided, then?”
There’s a tightness in his voice when he says it. “I’m taking the post in Penbrook.”
“In one year we’ll have more than enough money. You’ll stay with your father. It’ll be rough. But one rough year and we can live our dream, that’s all I ask.”
Next, she stands in the empty plot with one hand rested on a sunken fence, a slight lean in her hips as a breeze ruffles her hair and the hem of her dress. She waves to him. Every detail suggests the deliberate arrangement of a painting. Every stroke is precise, from the pink daubs of her cheeks to the blue specks in her eyes.
Edward shrugs the strap of his pack higher on his shoulder, and starts along the gravel road. His boots tread the morning away.
The path soon winds to a fork. The left ascends to the hills through sparse conifers, and the right slopes into a low-lying wood. He recalls fireside stories from long ago, and his imagination conjures wicked things that a man less honest would deny to fear.
He takes the high road.
And that’s it. The memory is done. I sink back into the cold, miserable hut with the hag. I’m still hungry. She is too. She rubs her bony hands together and licks her lips with a lurid tongue. “Bring more, little crow.”
I lower my beak. The fire crackles and makes of us deranged shadows on the walls. I wonder what’d happen if she fell on those flames. Wouldn’t be an accident; someone’d have to push her. But I cast such thoughts aside. Who knows what she sees with that glass eye of hers—if she can see into me. Best to take no chances.
I descend near a pond so still its surface lies smooth as a mirror. The few oaks that line its edge stand tall and solemn and bare. One of these is moving, and I realize at once that it’s Edward. All but a few leaves have abandoned him. Only those thin and withered remain atop his crown and the branches that rise from his back. Roots have grown through the toes of his shoes. With each arduous step, they cling in the mire and he must tug them free. The woods want to keep him.
I land upon a limb on his shoulder. “Can you move any slower, kid?”
He stops and his wooden neck groans as he turns to face me. His voice has become a torpid drone, like the wind through a hollow trunk. “I’m not . . . him . . . anymore . . . . ”
“Sure you are,” I tell him. “You’re looking for Charlotte, remember? You met her in Clearbell, and the moment you saw that blue-eyed doll you were smitten.”
His eyes lay beneath a wooden mask, all glazed over. The name comes no more than a whisper from his sagging mouth. “Char-lotte . . . ?”
“That’s it. Charlotte.”
He heaves one stump from the muck and lumbers on.
I spy the first green leaves that emerge from the mist ahead.
She still holds vestiges of a woman’s form. Curved hips and breasts and shapely shoulders. And a saint’s smile—the same smile that prickled my wings when I saw her in the fire, a smile for which men would march into the darkest darkness with only the faint glow of love to guide their steps.
But her roots run deep and her leaves are few.
“Charlotte?” Edward clasps her trunk with arms all stiff and wooden.
His touch stirs something in her, and her eyelids lift. A gentle sigh escapes her altered lips. He scrambles and tugs with all his might, with grunts and groans that echo through the woods. She’s dug in tight, won’t budge. Or so I think.
The soil begins to give. Edward stumbles back as he lifts her free from the tangled network of roots.
“Charlotte . . . ” he murmurs. “I can’t remember what I did . . . but I . . . I’m sorry . . . . ”
He holds her with both arms and begins to slog through the mud. The end of the woods is close. Don’t think anyone’s made it out before. Don’t know what happens to them, but I’d bet the sunshine does a world of good. Washes away the moon’s curse, I’d bet.
But the witch won’t be having that. I count three last leaves atop Edward’s outstretched branches and I help myself to the greenest one, the most recent. Maybe this will distract her long enough, before she lets her beasts on him.
My wings burn as I break the fog and sprint for the hut. This leaf brings the taste of rotten fruit. I want to spit it out, but I don’t.
“You took long,” she wheezes when I swoop onto the table. I surrender the leaf as the one thought pounds in my head over and over. She knows. Get out.
“He’s soon to join my garden, is he? Along with the girl?”
I nod. The hag will find out soon enough, either way. The end won’t be pretty for me, but I’m lost in other thoughts.
She accepts my lie with a grin and repeats the ritual—a gentle caress and a greedy whiff to catch the memory’s odour. Then she adds the powder and grinds it all together. The fire erupts and one last time we fall into the dream-world of the past . . . .
Edward follows a hillock down into the valley where Penbrook lies. The city dwarfs quiet, little Clearbell. Horse-driven carriages clop through cobblestone streets and smoke billows in plumes from rows of neat chimneys. The people look like ants from his vantage, as they bustle through the streets in vests, coats and hats. Bowlers for the men, pillboxes for the women.
He lodges with an old couple and sleeps in their loft, and must stoop unless he stands beneath the highest point of the pitched ceiling. Rain trickles through the tiles and smatters his forehead as he lies and tries to recall the image he holds of Charlotte standing wistful by the battered fence in Clearbell. But she stands further away each time, as if at the end of an ever-lengthening corridor. Her voice drowns in the constant patter, and soon he sees only the patched, dimly-lit ceiling of the loft once more.
He works from dawn till dusk with a crew of carpenters and masons, knocking together frames for new buildings. Saws rip through wood as hammers clang and trowels scrape. It’s artless work, but he’s grateful all the same. On the first day, the men break for lunch. They slump amongst the skeleton of a new clock tower with boisterous chatter as their wives and daughters arrive in a small parade. The women bring trays of scones with jam.
Edward’s limbs hang heavy once the sun spills its yolk on the horizon, and heavier on the following day and the day after that. On the third day, a young woman hands him a cup of water and his eyes lock on hers as he raises its rim to his parched lips.
She tilts her head with a smile and throws back a curtain of red hair to reveal eyes bright and green. “You work too hard,” she says. “Like the horse that is always tugging and huffing along while the other ones stroll.”
He gulps the water down and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
“You’re from the country, aren’t you?” she asks. “Must be nice there, with all the trees and animals.”
“It is.” He matches her smile. Maybe, he thinks—just maybe—the year won’t be so rough after all.
She says her name is Lona.
Winter descends. Rain suspends work on the clock tower for days that coast by in vague flashes. The uncle of the red-haired girl also works on the site, and he invites Edward to his workshop, where they craft fine doors, mantles, cabinets and balusters. Lona cooks the meals, cleans and washes, and he helps whenever he’s not occupied with his work. He mentions Charlotte, of course, but talks more of Clearbell than her.
The money he makes fills a sock beneath his pillow, and now and then he sends some back to his fiancée.
Yet each day, the house by the orchard sinks farther into the recesses of his mind, until it stands no more than an indistinguishable speck on a distant horizon.
Winter thaws. Spring heralds the first green shoots that sprout from awakened soil. The breeze carries the scent of freshly turned earth and new seeds.
He walks with Lona as they thread the streets to the fringe of town where the hills rise up into the wilderness. To admire the flowers, he assures himself. She tucks his arm around hers and he doesn’t stop her. Her hands are soft and warm and she smells of cherries. Lady Fate is a wicked mistress, they say, and to tempt her is to invite the most unfortunate of circumstances. Or perhaps it is simply poor luck that the figure in a blue shawl and long dress bobbing down the road toward them with a basket under one arm is Charlotte. Perhaps it’s a lesson.
The sight of Edward sends the basket toppling to the ground. Quinces, lemons and sweet rolls spill out and bounce along the path as she turns and runs.
He calls Charlotte’s name. He frees himself from Lona’s grip and hurries after her.
Her lithe step beats upon the mire as she takes the low road at the fork, down into the woods where it is no more spring than winter and the day turns to dark. The calls of beasts rise from the mist that hangs heavy on the muddy soil.
“Charlotte,” he cries. “Don’t go into the woods!”
The last fragment of Edward reaches its conclusion, and I’m consigned to the cold hut once more. The final page is turned, the book closed, sealed and stored away. I hope my distraction has lasted long enough. I fancy that Edward and Charlotte will find the edge of the woods and make their way back to Clearbell with blank minds, untarnished by these sour events. Perhaps to discover each other as strangers and fall in love all over again.
I hope and hope, naïve as the fools who lose their way here.
The witch exhales and sinks back into her chair to catch her breath, sated, exhausted. Soon she fiddles with her glass eye and leans over the crystal ball. With a turn of her spindly fingers, she summons a mist swirling inside of it. She scries with her false eye that which I cannot discern, but I know what she has seen once her face wrinkles to a scowl.
Eyes alight with hatred, she locks on me. “You!” she spits, “What have you done!”
I skip back onto the window sill as she hurls a bowl in my direction. It clatters to the floor. All the lives I’ve seen wither and decay flash before me, all the minds cannibalised by the hungry old hag. The anger in me boils up and I can’t just flutter out the window. I swoop on her and take my beak to her good eye. She lets out a terrible howl, bumps the crystal ball from the table. It explodes into shards on the floor. She thrashes and flails and stumbles around the hut, knocking down shelves and cabinets with a great clamour.
And there’s Lady Fate again, ready to spin her wicked magic with a gentle nudge that sends the witch toppling onto the hearth. The flames are hungry, and they take up her rags and her leathery hide like dry tinder. The walls alight with an orange glow. Never heard a sound so wretched as those screams.
Her beasts will be after me now. The whole woods will be clawing for me with gnarled limbs and savage jaws, but something else is happening.
My feathers start to fall out. First the ones on my tail and the tips of my wings. The witch is dead and so is her curse. And now I’m dying too.
People come from all round the land to see the Woods of Wistman’s Grove, and the stories they bring with them are as strange as the places they hail from. They come to taste the air so pure it can clean the rust from dying lungs, or to catch a vial of the dew that drips from golden leaves, sweet as honey. They say also that if a butterfly lands on your head in those woods, it’ll bring ten years of luck, but the strangest story is the one the locals tell.
The one about the two largest, most grandest oaks that stand by the entrance to the woods, their branches entwined like lovers embracing, sheathed in leaves green as the Garden of Eden. Back in their day, the old-timers will tell you, the grove was haunted by a witch who stole the memories of those who got lost there. It’s always at this part of the story that they go all tearful and watch the fire like they were hypnotised. You can steal a memory, they’ll tell you, but you cannot kill it. Just look at them two trees and you’ll know it’s true—that just as leaves fall and are replaced with new ones, the love those two shared lives on in the stories told about them.
Forever and ever after.
Tyson Young is an aspiring author of science fiction and fantasy. He resides in Melbourne, Australia. When he’s not writing, he’s mastering the art of pizza-making or wrestling with his English Mastiff, Rocket.