“There’s s-s-something in them w-w-woods,” Grandpop whispered with the usual quiver in his voice. His eyebrows were untamed and gray. His lips trembled as they always did when he spoke about the woods. He had stuttered for as long as I could remember. My sister and I asked him about it once. “The c-c-creature in the w-w-woods took my s-s-speech,” he answered with solemn eyes,” along with your M-m-mama and G-g-grandma. No m-m-man can recover f-f-from an encounter like that.” We never knew a time before Grandpop’s stutter, a time with Grandma or Mama, before the creature. Grandpop said that Ｍama had loved to ski. In fact, she skied every day. One day, she skied into the woods and never came out. He said she had skied into the unforgiving creature, causing her demise. That was why, whenever we explored the area surrounding the woods that lay behind our cabin, Grandpop would put us down and try to scare us with his words. We knew better than to argue with Grandpop about the creature that haunted his dreams, but as we were reaching adulthood, we were curious and braver than we should have been. Fortune favors the bold, right? That’s how the saying goes. Well, not in this part of the world.
We waited until Grandpop drifted off into a deep afternoon sleep. If there was a creature in our neck of the woods, we deserved to know its face. That is partly why we decided to look for it in the daytime. But, if I had to be honest, it was also because we were afraid that Grandpop’s terrifying tales might be true. A creature was bound to be less frightening when the sun shone onto its flesh, we thought, we hoped.
The excitement in the air was palpable as we set out to face the unknown. Something had haunted our grandfather, stole his livelihood, left him a mere skeleton of a man. However, it was all in his head, we believed. We did not doubt that Grandma and Mama fled the cold country as we didn’t blame them. We planned to do the same, but we couldn’t leave Grandpop. Heaven knows he won’t survive a trip down the snow-covered hills.
We ran towards the woods, our boots sinking deep into the snow with every step we took. Sophie laughed excitedly. Her laughter sounded strange, distant. The thrill of our adventure was enough to keep us from feeling the cold. With beating hearts, we walked through the woods. The trees grew tall, as if they were searching for warmth and sunlight, but failed in their quest. Darkness fell around us. ‘Round here, there wasn’t any sparkling sunshine on the snow. Silence began to consume us. The only sounds to be heard were our breaths and the sloshing of our shoes in the snow. Being young, we got bored quickly, so we hadn’t walked far into the woods before we decided to turn back. That is when Sophie saw her. She raised her hand and pointed as if the woods had swallowed her ability to speak.
Time seemed to stand still as our eyes locked with hers. Only after she smiled did I realize I had been holding my breath. Although she didn’t seem entirely human, she was breathtaking. Sophie took my hand as we walked closer to the woman. Her naked body looked as if it was wrapped in the most incredible exquisite leaves. Around her neck lay a cocoon, nature’s scarf. Her face was gorgeous, with large eyes, a delicate nose, and a big, friendly smile. Her face, too, was covered. An algae-like substance flourished on her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. I can’t explain it. Even though this woman was so unusual, she drew us closer as if we were under a spell. It wasn’t until Sophie was close enough for the woman to reach out and touch her cheek that I felt uneasy. “Sophie, let’s go,” I whispered through a ragged breath. Sophie didn’t respond. She was about to learn a lesson, and after that, she would never learn anything ever again.
I shouted my sister’s name and let go of her hand just in time to see her rise up into the sky. Sophie did not react. She was as if she, too, was in a cocoon, oblivious to what was happening around her.
The woman’s mouth opened unnaturally wide. Something resembling the roots of a tree crawled slowly out of the woman’s mouth, covering her beautiful face. I might not be the most educated person, but I knew enough to know this wasn’t good. So I turned. I ran. I left Sophie behind. I ran to the end of the woods, where I could see the welcome sparkle of sunshine on the snow, and then I realized what I had done. I turned back and ran back to find my sister, to bring my Sophie home to Grandpop.
All that remained in the spot where Sophie and the woman had been was blood. Sophie’s blood. The redness of her blood seemed unnaturally crimson on the snow. The color embraced its white canvas well, telling a story of a girl who didn’t listen to her elder. The blood left traces of misfortune in the air as my nostrils filled with the smell of my sister’s end. I fell to my knees and reached out to touch my sister’s blood, still wet on the snow. I cried about my sister. I cried about my lack of bravery. I cried about knowing what made Grandpop the man he is today. Even though the creature could return, I didn’t care. Nothing could bring Sophie back. Nothing mattered. Nothing would matter ever again. I’m not sure how long I sat there in the snow, feeling my tears freeze on my cheeks. But, in the end, I knew what I had to do. I had to tell Grandpop.
The walk home was excruciating. My legs throbbed from overexertion and the cold, but it was my heart that would never recover. I opened our little cabin door just in time to see Grandpop rise from his midday nap. His hair was wild, and his lips were swollen. He looked at me with concern, sensing something was very wrong. “R-R-Rachel, child. What’s wrong?” he asked calmly, putting his hands through his unruly hair. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for what needed to be said. “Grandpop, there’s s-s-something in them w-w-woods.”