The Hidden Spirit Of The Forest
Amelia Herridge Ishak
The silence brought on the night. That fresh, crispy stillness that comes as the last of the day’s light slips away beyond the horizon. Time was frozen, the world taking a collective breath, before darkness seeped into the crevices of the sky.
The night changes things.
It focuses our minds, it heightens our senses, and the things we come to rely upon during the day, become blurred. Every noise, smell, touch, taste becomes strange, as our sight becomes blinded to the reality in front of us.
This night, the world seemed endless. Bottomless. A hollow space that plunged Lyssa further and further into nothingness. Floating around in her own empty vacuous space. She knew there was a bottom, she could feel it under her feet. But she could not see where it began, where it ended, where it went. Every direction was directionless.
Carefully, she lowered her gaze.
Her mind focused on the ground below her. Detail by detail. She saw grey dirt. Small specs of dust and sand, packed loosely together in such a way that she was certain it would sink under the duress of any given weight. It was hard to gauge how far from the ground she was. It was uneven, and though she was certain she was standing firmly on it, it seemed her mind would not catch up. From out of the dust sprouted little tufts of grass, and the roots of a tree weaving through the underground. And a layer of mulching leaves and wet peat.
Somehow the sight triggered the smell. A dampness of the leaves squelched into the ground where snow had melted. And more than that. A hue of something vinegary and meaty. Salty and warm.
Light was drifting upwards now. Slowly. And she recognised it as a new day dawning. A day that would no longer disguise the evidence of the night.
Her heart beat faster in fear of looking up. To trace the line of roots and branches towards the tree up ahead. It all looked normal except that she knew in her gut that it wasn’t.
She had been here before.
She didn’t want to see it again. To relieve the trauma of what she already knew she had seen and had tried to ignore. But the smell was hard to forget.
Who would want to remember the shadow of the woman who hung from that tree? The woman, whose hands were nailed brutally to the branches above. Blood dripping from her hands. Blood dripping from her mouth. Blood dripping from her inner thigh. Bleeding into the tree and giving it life.
But this time, she forced herself not to look away. Looking away was just as much as a crime. And it was as if the world shifted with the intention in her mind. Her body drifted upwards, the tree drew closer and closer, following the trajectory of her eyes.
To the missing left shoe. To the torn linen dress. A cape soaked in blood. A belt left undone. A necklace ripped from a neck. Until eventually she reached the faceless women. Every time the faceless figure lay hidden under the shadow of her hood, and Lyssa had never dared to look underneath it.
She reached out a shaky hand towards the hanging figure. The hood was dark navy and lined with silver silk. It was expensive. She gently reached underneath the hood, feeling the rough and boney skull of the body. And even though it made no sense what she felt and what she saw, her body moved on instinct.
Her heart was beating faster than she ever thought it could beat. Her mouth went dry. But she had to do this before she lost her nerve. With the fastest count to three, she flung the hood back from the woman and let out a silent scream into the forest. The wind howled around her.
She stared into the soulless eyes of the figure — bulging, red and lifeless. And the cruel smile stretching from ear to ear. She couldn’t tear her eyes away, no matter how hard she wanted to.
The wind swirled around her in defiance, the trees smashing their leaves together. She shook her head and tried to close her eyes. But then the ground fell from beneath her feet and she fell faster and faster into the night.
This was not her responsibility.
As she fell back, Lyssa imagined her body hitting the snow covered ground, the vertebrae of her back cracking with the impact of the fall. She imagined a little cloud of snow puffing up around her, as the weight of her body displaced it. She imagined feeling the warmth of blood trickle out from behind her ears. But instead, she felt two arms sliding out round her back, gently holding her body upright. Her feet dangled slightly in midair before being lowered back to the solid ground. Her eyes burst open, her brain took a few seconds to reconnect with the rest of her body, before she quickly and embarrassingly scrambled back to her feet.
“I..” she stammered, brushing herself down out of awkwardness, rather than because she was covered in snow.
“I..” she stuttered again, her mind racing forward to what it should say. Lyssa rubbed her head, where a headache was forming. Her memories were scrambling between past and present. She saw Elyrian now, eyebrow cocked, waiting in impatient anticipation. His boots were unlaced. His shirt was half untucked. His trousers were creased and looser fitting. His hair was not brushed.
“Thank you.” She said in a small voice, and she saw her sincerity had caught him off guard. “You’re welcome.” He responded politely.
The wind picked up and blew snow around her ankles, which she now realised were bare. In fact, she was covered by nothing more than her night slip, which had never been designed for warmth or comfort. She shivered all the way down her spine, out of self-consciousness and cold.
Elyrian huffed, rolling his eyes and shrugging himself out of his coat which he then handed to her. He said nothing. He didn’t need to. The look in his eyes was more than enough. And her annoyance at him distracted her momentarily.
“Why are you here?” she asked, at the same time he asked her,
“What on earth were you doing?” The disdain and mistrust in his voice both irritated and frightened her. But she held back and allowed him to repeat the question. “…And don’t shy from the truth, as you always seem to do.”
She looked away from him with unease. Delaying having to respond. Unsure of what she should say. Behind her, the manor house remained still, everyone in the depth of sleep, and just a single light glowing which she presumed to be Elyrian’s. In front of her, lay the vast thicket of trees that stretched out along the entire boundary of the village leading up to the three emerald mountains in the distance. Standing at its edge here, the forest looked so inviting. Not like the one she saw in her nightmares. Here the trees were small and twisting upwards, kissing each other with their branches. Just the peak of little pink and purple flowers poking their heads out of the snow. Some of the trees stood tall and bare, whilst others had maintained some of their winter fir.
And yet warning rang through her thoughts, dark and foreboding. Not the kind of warning designed by parents to keep a child safe and in order. This was a deep-seated fear of the forest. A belief in the legends, passed down through so many generations, that they had entered the realms of truth and history. And yet… How could something so beautiful, so wondrous, invoke such fear? She felt the chasm between her and the forest, now more than she had ever done before. A chasm birthed from both fear and wonder. Because up until a few days ago, the forest had been nothing more than the center of a legend. And now she felt these legends as if she was a part of them. Memories of a history that went beyond the age of her current physical form. A history that repeated that itself over and over, in an infinite loop.
Sometimes she felt as if she was seeing someone else’s life in her dreams. A life she felt that she had lived, and yet knew she had not.
The forest continued to feed her curious mind with its grim images, fragments of truth, spliced together out of sequence and out of sync. Images flashed through her with a shiver, like a ghost walking over her grave, the wind howling through her bones as her mind remembered the woman in the night. That hidden spirit of the forest, edging her way towards Lyssa. How she hung amongst the tree rows, who bowed their branches, willowed their arms, whimpering in submittance. How she advanced towards Lyssa with unrelenting urgency. Calling her name out into the silence of the night. Calling it in malice and fright. And Lyssa’s body, motionless, felt the sensation of the woman’s breath crawling up the hairs on the back of her neck, like she was constructing a spell on her skin. And then that face. As the hood fell back and glared up at her. She remembered the dark red eyes staring back at her, blood oozing from the saps of the tree…
She could feel Elyrian’s impatience burn up the back of her neck. She was still unsure about what part he played into her narrative, and he did not make himself easy to trust. She knew how skeptical of her he was, though she wasn’t quite sure why his opinion mattered so much. She had never really cared before. Except, well, this time, he didn’t know the whole story. Perhaps that was why. That he never gave her the chance to explain, or show him any more of her than what he had decided he had seen. And that wasn’t fair. But she had to conceded that she didn’t make it easy for him. Because she too had hidden stuff from him.
“What do you know about the forest?” She asked, not looking at him, scared to see what his face would read, though she could almost hear him thinking. He answered slowly, hesitantly wondering why the conversation was heading in this direction.
“I know of the legends, if that is what you are asking.” She shook her head. “No, I mean, what do you know about the forest? Not what people have told you, but what do you actually know?” She felt his face turn towards hers, staring. But still she could not bring herself to look back.
“I am not sure I follow your meaning.” She stepped forward with one small step, her hand reaching out towards that small little tree over the forest boundary line. “Wait, no!” he shouted and grabbed her hand tightly, stopping her from moving forward. She turned her gaze to his hand on hers and then finally met his eyes. They were full of fear. And for the first time, she had seen a genuine reaction from him, not guarded, not cautious. And he had barely even hesitated in touching her, and equally barely noticed either that she had not yet let go.
“Why?” Lyssa asked.
“You know why.”
“No, I don’t. Why? Why not?”
“Because it’s forbidden.”
“Why do you fear it?” He went to respond and then shut his mouth again. Then he set his face, and she could almost feel the conflict inside him, the logic trying to force its way to explaining the impossible. Slower now, she took a small step forward, though still ensuring her feet stayed behind the boundary. Her eyes maintained complete contact with him, her hand still in his, urging him to trust. She could see the discomfort in his body, rigid as he held his breath. But he didn’t stop her and that felt like victory enough. And slowly she placed her other hand on the tree, leaning her body forward so that her fingers made contact.
Nothing happened. And she let out a quick breath she had not realised she too had been holding.
But she felt his body tense, a small film of sweat forming between their entwined hands. “We shouldn’t be here.” His voice was small and dry, but his resolve wasn’t as determined as it had been.
She simply shook her head.
“What good can come of this? We have already disturbed too much.”
“Elyrian…” The words were a little alien in her mouth, not used to addressing him so informally, like a swearing for the first time in front of your parents. And he was also not used to be named in this way. His eyes looked somewhere between panic and anger, and she wasn’t sure which would be the dominant emotion.
Still facing him, her hand still in his, she took a step backwards and into the forest. He did not move. But his fierce look directly at her almost cost her the last of her nerve. She took another step. Again he did not move. And then another step, her body now fully over the boundary mark, her hand about to slip away from his. She felt the disappointment at his refusal more than she thought she would care. And worse still, the realisation that she might have to face her demons alone. But then she saw him twitch, his face twist. “If we die, I want it on record that I protested this mad idea.” She nodded but couldn’t help the smile that spread over her, and relief. She squeezed his hand a little tighter than she meant, as a confirmation, as a sign of confidence, to check it was really there, and also to prevent him from changing his mind.
Elyrian decided that he was mad. This place had finally claimed him like all the others. All of this was madness. His mind did a quick recap of how he ended up here. He had seen her, watching from the window, heading towards the forest. He wasn’t sure what made him pause to watch her out the window. Perhaps it was the way she walked with such a determined gait. Perhaps it was because he had grown more aware of her than he had realised. And then…she had just stood there. At the boundary line. And if someone had not known any better, he would have thought she was a statue. So he threw on a shirt and went to meet her. Telling himself it was to avoid anyone else noticing her strange behaviour. Knowing really that it was because he had to know what she was doing. It wasn’t an obsession, he told himself. But when it came to her, Elyrian had this hero complex. He had to save her from here and herself, before it was too late. Why her? He wasn’t sure yet. But his body reacted more on instinct than anything else. He had meant to question her, ready for an argument, ready for a conflict. But then she was falling towards the ground. He wasn’t sure how he managed to get there in time. It felt like she was moving in slow motion whilst the world around her was moving in double speed. And when she fell into his arms, eyes closed and peaceful, he couldn’t help the sense of relief and worry that washed over him. That she was safe. That she was ok. And then the annoyance. At himself more than her. But maybe he had come across too harshly. Because she didn’t take the bait. She didn’t argue back. Instead she asked him to trust her. To help her. And he realised in that moment something had changed. She was no longer fighting against him.
The touch of her skin against his fingers wrapped together felt nice. The nicest feeling he had ever felt in this place. And he surprised himself just at how willing he was to be led by her. It was new for both of them. And she certainly knew where she was going. Which was of course impossible. And yet the way she walked with ease, turning this way and then that way, a confidence and self assuredness he had never witnessed in her before, made him question how she knew the direction to take.
“Where are we going?” He asked her.
She did not respond, but continued walking at a rapid pace. He saw her forehead wrinkle with concentration. It was almost like she was listening to the trees. Listening for them to guide her. And he was struggling to keep up. Small branches whipped past her and smacked into his face. But she moved through them like she was moving through water. Unrelenting. “Lyssa,” he heard himself call out, but she moved in a trance, and made no signal that she heard him. Onwards she went, turning left, then right, then left again on a seemingly invisible path, until they came to a small clearing.
“Lyssa…Lyssa!” Abruptly he stopped, breathless and panting. “Please, slow down.” Her hand slipped from his and she went a few paces forward until she stopped too. And when she turned to face him, he could have sworn he saw a fog dissolve from her eyes. She was standing in the middle of the clearing, the trees circling around them. When he regained control of his breath again, he could observe more clearly where they were. The trees were different here. Older, maybe? Definitely bigger. He wished he knew more. But the air hung heavier here and damp. Then he noticed why they looked different from the other trees. Sporadically things had been placed on them. A shoe, nailed to the trunk of a tree, a ripped and ragged shirt dripping off a branch, a belt and a sock. He felt Lyssa tense beside him and he realised she was scared. His heart raced harder.
“Where are we?” He whispered, fearing to speak aloud. She slowly walked forward towards the nearest tree, where a shoe with a missing lace had been nailed to its trunk. “I don’t know.” she answered, studying the tree in front of them. But she knew exactly where she was. The place felt familiar. Not because she had been here, physically. But she had been here before.
“What is this place?” She shook her head. He stepped a little closer now too, examining the trees, but she noticed he kept a much more cautious distance than she maintained. “Are these clothes?”
“You can see that?” She asked with genuine surprise. She had maintained that only she could see these things, that to anyone else they would look like any other tree. He gave her a look that told her she was definitely wrong about that.
She walked around in the other direction, until she came to one tree that made her pause. It was stronger than the other trees, with a thicker skin of bark that cracked and wrinkled. There was dust and sand on the ground. And a tuft of grass at its base. Not quite as little as she remembered, but large and rectangular. The perfect size for a body. So concentrated she was on this tree, that she almost didn’t hear him creep up behind her.
“The trees are in pain.” she said to herself, “I can hear them screaming.”
“There is anger here.”
Silently, she reached out a hand towards the tree trunk. Her hand shook, despite trying to maintain her bravado. Concentrating. Ignoring the ice cold fear that swam through her veins. There was something particularly invasive, she felt, touching the trees without consent. And yet, she felt if she could just touch it, with no more than just a single fingertip, and make a connection, she would understand. She could almost sense the rough bumps of the tree’s skin, but before she could make physical contact, a huge gust of wind blew into their faces. Shaken and shocked, she looked him dead in the eye.
Liam Keller currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is a part-time law student and works at a pet grooming and boarding facility, writing in his spare time. He began writing during his undergraduate studies in Toronto, pursuing it more seriously over the past year, during the pandemic.