You were told, weren’t you? Don’t go into the woods they said. Ah, but the confidence of ignorant youth that ignores the wisdom of knowledgeable age.
When you first came to the place, you were told, your parents were told, don’t go into the woods. Don’t go into the woods because it’s easy to get lost. People have gone missing.
You look on a map. How silly. The woods are not huge, a scant mile wide at their widest point. How could anyone get lost? Just walk in a straight line, you’d come out somewhere.
The woods back onto the property your parents have, in their wisdom, booked for the two weeks holiday. It is not a holiday that anyone wants. You want your friends back home, they don’t want each other. But it’s the time of year when people go on holiday, it’s what they deserve, it is what they’ve booked, so they put on a brave face.
Across a quiet road is the beach, and this is where you go that first afternoon. You put on sun lotion, lie on a towel, and when your parents join you, you ignore their bickering for a time. When it gets too much, you go to bathe in the sea. It feels comforting, calming to swim, to lose yourself in the vastness. If only you could stay out here forever, not have to go back to the toxicity that is family. But because you know you’re not a strong swimmer, you eventually go back.
That evening, pizzas are bought to save cooking. Your parents sit at the table outside and continue to tug at the threads of their marriage, so you take yours and sit at the edge of the woods. You blank out your parents, listen instead to the woods as they rustle and creak. You listen to the birds as they say goodbye to the day, to the nightingale as it says hello to the night. You listen to a fox, somewhere in the depths. But you don’t go in. You’ve been warned.
The next day on the beach is when you see him first. You’ve gone to buy ice cream. He’s with friends, but for you he’s the one who stands out. He’s tall, long limbed. His perfect bronzed hands sweep his blonde untamed hair from his eyes. You look at those hands and wonder what it would be like to be touched by them. The very thought makes you blush; you’ve not been touched like that before, though some have tried, but none have had hands like that. As if he feels you watching, he turns, sees your blush and smiles. You smile back, and turn away, blushing even more. Ice cream is forgotten.
That night, dad cooks on the barbecue, mum makes salad. Dad’s laughing and joking as if nothing’s wrong. But you know that before long a wrong comment will start the unrest. You take your plate and sit by the edge of the wood. You don’t listen to your parents, you listen to the woods, but you don’t go in. You’ve been warned not to go in. And you think about that boy.
The next day, you decide to have a coffee at the beach café. Coffee looks cooler than ice cream, and it will give you an excuse to stay a while. It will get you away from your parents. If you’re lucky, he might be there. You’ve been careful with your appearance that morning, and although you’re not tanned, you’re no longer pasty white.
You’re sipping your latte at the counter when he’s there at your left shoulder. He smiles, says Hi, asks your name. Tells you his. He introduces you to his friends, two boys, two girls, and you hang out for a while. He’s not with either of the self-assured girls, and he seems genuinely interested in you. Perhaps he likes them shy, submissive, gullible, a voice inside says. Perhaps he just likes me, you whisper back.
That night at dinner, you take yours to the edge of the woods again, lean back against a tree to eat, but you don’t go in. You’ve been told not to go in. You listen to the trees as they chatter, as they gossip in their leafy way about how you’ve met a boy. Let them gossip.
The next few days you continue to see the boy and his friends. He’s only talked to you, not suggested anything else, and all the while you gaze at him. His sable eyes, that seem to want to drown you, his hair that always falls in his eyes, his fingers that brush it away, oh to be that hair, to feel those hands. On the fifth day, when saying goodbye, he places a hand gently on your shoulder, trails his fingers down your arm, down to the tips of your fingers before turning away. A shock runs through you where he has finally touched you.
That night, after eating your dinner at the edge of the trees, you know that if he asked, you’d give yourself to him, and you try to imagine what it would be like. You’re old enough, you’re ready. And as you think these thoughts, and as you whisper his name, you circle a tree. You’ve been told not to go into the woods, but with your hand on the bark, you circle a tree. It’s only a slim tree, you never lose sight of the cottage, but you go in the woods ever so slightly. And you come out.
The following day it is hotter than ever. You meet up with the others after breakfast. You swim with them, and then they suggest going for a walk. You walk along the lane towards where your cottage is. You walk past the cottage to a field. You go into the field where it runs alongside the cottage garden. And you come to the woods. The others go into the woods, laughing. You hang back. Come, he says. And he holds out his hand. That beautiful hand. And he drinks you in with his beautiful, deep, deep eyes. You take his hand. He draws you in.
The light of the sun dapples though the leaves. Birds sing and flit from tree to tree. The others are ahead, but he stays with you, walks slowly with you hand in hand. You come to a clearing where trees once stood. He stops, turns you towards him, and draws you close. You feel his sweet breath as he leans in for that first kiss. You tremble as the kisses become more urgent. You surrender when he lays you down in the grass. There are no witnesses, save for the grass, the insects, the birds. And the trees.
Afterwards he holds you close, kissing you, murmuring, and then you do the unforgiveable. You fall asleep.
When you wake, you are alone. It is late afternoon, the sun is low in the sky. Where has he gone? You sit up and look around. You listen, but there’s only the woods sniggering at you, at your lost innocence, at your stupidity. You think you can find him, that he will be a short distance away. You stand up, put on your clothes, shout. There is no reply. You start to look around, in the bushes, behind the trees, but he’s not there. No-one’s there.
You go back to where you have slept, and think about which way you came, but there are no signs. It’s evening now, and although still light, a chill has replaced the heat. You scold yourself for being so naive. What if you’re pregnant? But that’s the least of your worries.
You look up at the late afternoon sun, try to judge which way is west. You need to go south to get back to the beach, so if you keep the sun to your right, you’ll get there eventually. Won’t you? After all, these woods are only a mile wide at their widest.
You stop every so often to listen. Surely your parents must miss you by now. You listen for their call. It won’t come. They finally managed to do what they have been trying to achieve for so long. They have torn up the remnants of their marriage. Your mother has taken the car to go home. She thinks you will come home with your father. Your father thinks she has picked you up and taken you with her. They are so intent on their own misery, at not communicating, each sure that your failure to respond to texts is the fault of the other, it will be a week before they realise you are missing. So you continue with the sun on your right.
But that was three hours ago. That was when there was still sun to follow. The sun gone now, and the canopy is all too consuming to follow the stars, even if you knew how. There is no sun. There is no heat. Now you’re feeling cold.
As the day dies, the woods awake. Not those gentle, pastoral woods where he lay you down with the bees and the birdsong. These are the woods of the night, the woods of the fox, the wolf, the bear. These are the woods of boggarts, goblins, and redcaps. This is the realm of the green man. And though the woods might be a mile wide at their widest, it is the green man who decides where that mile will end.
As you give up for the night, you think about the boy, about his friends. You wonder if they are laughing at your stupidity, or if they too have become separated, lost. Or were they part of the plan all along? You will never know.
You settle under a tree for the night, thinking to climb up in the morning light. If you wake. But when you do, you will see that the woods, these woods that are only a mile wide at the widest point, they go on forever. And ever.
You were told not to go into the woods. Everyone is told not to go into the woods because it’s easy to get lost. People have gone missing. But the locals know the woods need satisfying. So they tell everyone not to go into the woods, because they know that some people will. People like you.