The day had been bright at the time Clare had entered into the woods, but patches of light grey cloud had been rolling through the sky all afternoon, and were now starting to darken, slow in pace and collect together into a form that threatened rain. She hadn’t prepared for it, and there were another two kilometres to go before a branch of the trail would open out into a residential street where she could, if necessary, nip into the little heritage general store and have a drink while waiting out a rain shower. She picked up her pace.
Thinking of which of the many types of beverage she’d most like to order at the store if she needed to go in, she walked along mostly oblivious to the environment around her until she was jolted out of her thoughts by what sounded like children’s laughter off to her right. She stopped to listen. There was a small cheer and more laughter. Curious, she went over to the side of the trail and peered through the trees.
At the bottom of a heavily treed bank, there was a slow-flowing stream that she hadn’t been aware of. She must have been following alongside it for a while, yet she hadn’t heard the sound of water, and hadn’t remembered seeing it as a feature on the map at the beginning of the trail, either. The children she had heard were leaping up to grab a large tree branch that was hanging above the stream, and swinging themselves over to the other side. There were three of them, two girls and a boy, around nine or ten years old, she guessed.
She smiled, hit by a feeling something like, but not quite, nostalgia: the scene was such a visceral reminder of her own childhood growing up near woods very similar to the one she was standing in. She checked the sky, and when rain didn’t appear imminent, she decided to climb down the bank a little way and lean against a tree to watch.
After a couple of minutes, there was a small splash as one of the girls landed feet-first at the edge of the stream. She hadn’t fallen, and can’t have got wet more than up to her ankles, but she stumbled along the bank away from her friends as if injured, and sat down heavily with such a forlorn expression that it shocked Clare. Her friends looked a little sad, but not concerned. and they didn’t ask if she was all right or attempt to comfort her. Clare figured that maybe they were used to her sulking out of injured pride. The other girl and boy continued with their play, which was only a little more subdued, and Clare continued to watch them.
A little while later, the boy completely misjudged his swing and fell heavily on his butt in the deepest part of the stream. He quickly got up and waded through the calf-deep water over to where the girl with the wet feet was sitting, and crawled up onto the bank to sit beside her. They both now looked forlorn, but they didn’t speak, and the girl who was still dry continued her play, albeit now with a more serious air.
Clare watched on, fighting a sudden maternal urge to interfere, to go down and comfort the sad children. But as she looked at them, her eyes seemed to be playing tricks on her: the children’s feet were camouflaged to the point of disappearance. The more closely she looked, the more she was convinced that neither of them had feet any more. Disconcerted, she looked at the girl still playing, at the amount of concentration on her face. She looked back at the other two children, and gasped when she saw that the boy now, unmistakably, also had no legs and no lower arms.
Before she was able to properly digest what she was seeing, a loud roll of thunder burst open the sky and a heavy rain began to fall. The girl still playing took one last swing over the stream, briefly hugged her friends, and dashed to a nearby stand of trees, where she somehow made herself small enough to squeeze into a hollow in one of them. The other two children, unable to run, remained sitting on the bank. They now huddled up close, and Clare’s breath hitched painfully in her throat as she watched the pair of them wash out of existence in a matter of minutes.
She stood there, motionless, staring at the spot where the children had been sitting, until she found herself dragging the inside of her sleeve across her eyes to dry them. Pulling herself together, she stumbled down to the bottom of the slope of trees, jumped over the old stream-bed, dry for decades now, and ran straight to the hollowed tree.
The girl wasn’t there. Clare reached into her pocket and took out her keyring with its miniature flash-light, turned it on and stuck her head inside the gap that she used to be able to squeeze her whole body through so easily as a child. Inside, on a natural ledge, she found the small box of mementoes she had stashed there during the summer that she had played daily in these woods with her two friends before the day that a great storm unexpectedly blew through, felling the big tree that they were climbing and trapping them all under the surface of the stream beneath its heavy branches.
Clare gazed thoughtfully out at the woods around her for a few minutes, then took a deep breath and allowed her spirit to be absorbed into the hollow tree.
In 2011, Kate Chandler turned in her badge and scanner gun, leaving an eleven-year career in librarianship to become a Mother and Armchair Philosopher-Psychologist. She enjoys observing, pondering, analysing, writing and curating interesting web links and aesthetically pleasing pieces of art, and sometimes manages to bring these things together to create something that she deems worthy of sharing. UK born and bred, she moved to Vancouver, Canada in 2005, thence to the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, where she currently resides in the sleepy seaside town of Sechelt with her husband and four-year-old daughter. http://kchandler.wordpress.com/
The Woods is Copyright © Kate Chandler 2015