Andy sneaked out of her house when she heard the bedroom doors shut and saw the lights twinkle out of the candles. She grabbed a bundle next to the front door and tried hard not to grin.
“You need to be careful around here,” Arabella said.
Frozen grass crunched underfoot. The town lights began to glow over the crest of the hill.
This ain’t a normal town.
Stones clattered over her shoes; her breath hung in a cloud around her and a green scarf swung around her pale face.
People here don’t like the young ones.
She hurried to the first house and rapped sharply on the door; Jenny’s face filled the frame, grinning.
They’re the ones that get hurt.”
“Let’s go,” Andy said.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived with her older father and spent all her days pressed up against the window. Her smile beamed across the yard as she watched a robin fluttered down from a tree.
She glanced over her shoulder into the room. Her father sat in an armchair facing the fire, holding a glass in one hand, his gaze empty and vacant.
“Papa,” she chirped. “May I go play outside?”
He started, turned around to stare at her. “Outside?” he said. “Why?”
“To play. My other friends are outside.”
He considers. “You can go. But don’t go into the woods.”
He shakes his head. “Just don’t.”
Later the little girl stands by herself in a puffy pink coat, staring into the forest while her friends chase each other around, laughing and shouting.
The trees are dark and gloomy, the branches rustle together softly in the wind. Somewhere an empty, echoing cry shrieks over the tops of the pine branches. Andy shivers.
She turns away and runs in the frosted gray grass. She’s too young to be afraid right now.
Once upon a time, there was a girl who turned eight on a day when blustery winds blew over the fields and leaves spun from frozen silver trees. The elders in her town complained of the frost freezing their joints and her friends sang to her in goofy party hats.
For her birthday, Andy grinned from ear to ear and gobbled up chocolate on chocolate cake-- the only acceptable kind. Presents tempted her eye, glittering on the table.
Her father smiled as he watched her unwrap her gifts, his silver hair like spun wire. He clapped as hard as the rest when she puffs out her candles. “What did you wish for?” Patty Wolf shouts.
She grins up at her father. “Can’t tell you. Then it won’t come true.”
Later that night when everyone has trickled out the door, he sits her down for her birthday gift. Smiling, he hands her a small silver bracelet with a pendant in the shape of a single leaf. Her eyes widen at the gift; it was the one she’d admired in a store.
Andy beams at him, and he wraps her in a hug. “Happy birthday,” he whispers. He strokes her soft blond hair.
Outside, the trees beckon and breathe, rasping their fingernails against the window. She gazes outside at them as she slips into bed. She doesn’t like them. They unsettle her.
But she can’t deny that they are a little enchanting, the branches gleaming under the moon.
Once upon a time, there was a girl who lived in a tiny town with her father and her friends, and who thought she knew the world like a map for her to travel.
Andy and her friends staggered around the tiny town, laughing; they didn’t notice the eyes glaring out of windows and curtains that slammed roughly shut.
Her father watched worriedly from his house; at fifteen, there was little he could do to control her and little advice he could give without her taking it for granted. She tended to listen to her friends more than she did him.
The next day Andy trudged down the stairs and smiles at him sweetly, reaching to snatch a banana and kiss his cheek. “Jenny and Wilma are going to the bookstore today,” she says to him. “Can I go too?”
He hesitates, but nods. Who is he to criticize? It’s a small, safe town. She knows his rules. “Okay,” he says. “Just--”
Andy rolls her eyes, grabbing her backpack and disappearing out the door. “I know!” she shouts. “I won’t go into the woods!”
Later that night, much later, she’s at her friend’s house and staring into the forest. A breeze rustles over her skin. Andy closes her eyes.
Behind her is the sound of her friends shouting and laughing, the music of the party threatening to drown everything like its own wave. Emanating from the trees, too, is a kind of soft buzz, like whispers and hisses flowing together. She takes a step closer.
The buzzing grows louder in its excitement. The trees wave long branches towards her. Andy watches them.
There’s a kind of enchantment, a kind of spellbinding magic to the trees, the way they move and brush and sway together. The buzzing grows louder with every step she takes. She can feel it in her bones and in the growing, eager excitement that increases with her every breath.
She’s going into the woods.
Carefully she continued down, her excitement rising, the trees bristling eagerly.
Andy was almost to the mouth of the woods when a thought splintered across her brain and stopped her in her tracks.
Her father always said to never go into the woods. She casts a nervous look at the trees. Maybe he was right.
Or what if he wasn’t? Andy doubted he had ever been into the woods, felt the magic in his bones, tasted the enchantment on his tongue. He might not know as much as he pretended to. She stared into the forest. Dark, cold green and deepest indigo brush.
One of her friends screamed eagerly, and laughter broke out. She jumped a little, glanced toward the sound. They sounded like they were having fun. Maybe she should go back to the party. She studied the woods a moment, then began to walk away, towards her friends.
Andy glanced briefly over her shoulder at the trees.
Maybe another night.
Once upon a time, there was a man whose only joy in life had been taken away when he was young-- his wife, fresh from labor, pulled screaming into the arms of death.
His joy was taken away but put back quickly. His young daughter, with her golden hair like summer straw, her eyes the of green mossy pebbles.
He promised his wife never to let anything happen to her, and he hadn’t. He stuck by her side for years, loyally, faithfully, never letting her see him sad or angry, never striking her when she failed a test or skipped a day of school. She was young and happy, and he resolved to let her be so as long as she didn’t get hurt.
He liked her friends. He trusted her to be smart because her mother was smart and he raised her to be smart. He would never, ever let her be sad.
I’d walk the world for her, he’d think fiercely, watching her sleep at night. I’d crawl through rats and stab out the moon’s eyes, just to keep her safe.
I’d even go into the woods for her.
He shudders, but pushes the thought away and watches her six-year-old mind dream, her feet tangled in the covers and her lashes fluttering against her cheek. He glances out the window, at the wild green world of leaves and tangled brambles beyond.
You’re not taking her.
Once upon a time, there was a woman named Arabella who people whispered was the bravest person in town.
She’d gone into the woods.
Young children gazed at her in awe as she passed, and at every bar, people bought her drinks. Not only was she brave but a hero-- and braving the woods was no small task.
Andy approached her cautiously one afternoon in the local pub, where Arabella sat. Her hair was messy and brown-gray and gathered up into a plait down her back, and she wore a shapeless gray sweater. She downed a glass of wine as though it were water.
Andy cleared her throat. “Miss Arabella?”
Arabella glanced up through bloodshot eyes. “Another one?”
She didn’t wait for an answer. “Fine. Sit down. Ask yer little questions. No, I didn’t see any monsters. No, nothin’ tried to attack me. No, I didn’ see anyone die. Yes, the little boy survived.”
Andy blinks, startled. “Um. Sorry. I just… I wanted to know what it feels like. To go in. I want to know if it’s really as dangerous as people say.”
Arabella glowered at her for a long moment. Finally, she growled, “You been steppin’ near the trees, girl?”
“Just one time.”
“Well, don’t.” She takes another sip of her drink and snaps her fingers for more. “Don’t ever go near the trees again. That’s really all yeh need to know.”
Andy hesitated, remembering what her father said about bothering people. “ Um, okay. Thank you for your time, ma’am.” She turned towards the door.
“I didn’t mean for yeh to leave,” she called. “Sit down.”
Arabella leaned forward, looking at Andy intently. “Listen to every word Im’a tell you girl, ‘cause I won’t say it twice: don’t go into the woods. Don’t go near the woods, don’t look at the woods, don’t say anything to the woods, and definitely don’t ever go in. Not even a step. Not even with the tip of yer boot. It’ll have you faster than you can blink.”
“How?” Andy breathed. She wanted to move closer, to be closer to this magical woman who had witnessed so much. Such power lay with her.
Arabella grunted. “It ain’t real clear how, girly, and yeh wouldn’t understand it. It just takes yeh. It takes yeh, and it really don’t wanna put yeh back. I was nineteen when I had to go in. Barely got out, too. For days I’d been hearing the tree-branches a-scratchin’ on the window, and I’d been hearing the howls.
‘Did yeh hear that?’ I’d ask my friend. ‘Hear what?’ she’d say. I was too scared to sleep.”
“One night I heard the scream, an’ this time I weren’t imagining it. Folks were gettin’ outta bed an’ shouting, ‘It got Jamie! It got Jamie!’ Weren’t the first time I’d seen that scene.”
“Never would I have imagined goin’ in, but Jamie was my little cousin. And something was different tonight. My bones were buzzin’. The woods were callin’.”
A chill went down her spine as Andy remembered the feeling, the magic in her bones, the gasping of the leaves. My bones were buzzin’.
“So I went plungin’ into the trees, and for the briefest second I heard the screams of my parents and friends behind me, an’ then it was gone. I got swallowed, almost.”
“I remember the trees pressin’ in on my, the brambles winding ‘round my hands and feet. I could hear nothin’ but my own heartbeat an’ breath. I was shovin’ my way through every bleedin’ thicket, an’ my hands were scratched up real nice.”
Arabella held out her hands, puckered with greenish scars. Andy shivered.
“I was runnin’ faster than I’d ever run in my life. All I could think about was getting outta there. All I could think about was going home, an’ movin’ an’ never coming back to this infernal town. Then, suddenly, I stumbled into a clearin’. It was full o’ moonlight an’ shining silver offa every leaf and thorn. Most beautiful thing I ever did see.”
Andy held her breath.
“Then I found Jamie, an’ we went home.” Arabella shrugged. “The end.”
“That’s it?” Andy demanded. “How did you get home?”
“I retraced my steps back. Twasn’t hard.”
“That can’t be all there is,” Andy said in disbelief. “Did you have to fight through the thorns? How did you find your cousin? Weren’t you all scratched up?”
Arabella glared. “That’s all, and I ain’t sayin’ more. That’s all yer young mind needs to know. Rest is history.”
“I can handle a little history!”
“No, yeh can’t. Go home, girlie. People here don’t like the young ones, like you. Know why? They’re the fools, the adventurers, the ones that get hurt. When they go in, the woods get stronger, an’ hungrier. Scares everyone else too.”
Andy frowned at Arabella for a long moment, noted the stubbornness on the old woman’s face. Abruptly she stood, her chair screeching behind her, and stalked towards the door.
“Don’ forget, girly,” she called after her. “Not a toe to the trees!”
Once upon a time, there was a girl who stormed home in a temper, a girl who slammed the door to her room, a girl who glared out at the woods from her window, a girl who called her closest friend and told her she was coming to her house at midnight.
A girl who went into the woods.
Once upon a time, the clock on the wall had struck midnight, and a yellow-haired young woman crept down the stairs, grinning. She was strangely giddy to give in to the pull she felt towards the forest.
The girl crept across town to her friend’s house and rapped sharply on the door. Her friend peered through the frame, smiled, and stepped out to help her carry the bundle in her arms. Whispering to each other as they went, the two women set off towards the forest.
Andy stared into the trees, dropped her bag to the ground. Jenny’s eyes gleamed black in her pale face. Andy took a deep breath, looked towards her friend. “Are you ready?”
She nods, solemn.
Andy takes the bundle from her and peeks inside it. Apples and a few rolls, plus flashlights, a compass, and a change of clothes. A silver bracelet gleams at the bottom.
Jenny takes her hand. “We can do this.” She kisses her.
A slow smile is spreading over Andy’s face. Wind rustles over her hair and the trees are hissing eagerly. Her bones were buzzing.
Together, they stepped into the trees.
One in the morning. A scream.
Two in the morning. A figure creeps to the mouth of the woods.
Three in the morning. A bare patch of ground, an invisible hand slowly scrawling words upon it.
Four in the morning. Another scream.
Six in the morning. The sun rises, grass turns to gold, and the trees rustle innocently.
Eight in the morning and people are awake, turning towards the day, headed into town. In the center, on a bare patch of earth, villagers mutter at the strange phrase scrawled there. A crowd gathers around it.
Nine in the morning. A father’s grief. He flees from town, maddened, and is never seen again.
Ten in the morning. Old Arabella is buying her bread when she sees the crowd where people have been gawking at all morning. She pushes forward, curious. The bread slips from her arm.
“Oh, no,” she mumbled, staring at the earth. Her eyes filled with tears.
Be bold, be bold, but not too bold, lest your heart’s blood should run cold.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who knew more than her father thought she did. She heard his muffled sobs through the crack in the door on nights he grieved, saw newspaper articles he kept hidden in his desk, found a picture of a grinning, golden-haired woman. Eventually, she pieced it all together.
Till the time she turned nine, she had put together a plan to rescue her mother, until reality brought a crashing halt on that. There wasn’t anything she could do anymore.
Still, one small part of her wondered about it, gazing into the trees. No one really knew what went on in there. If crazy old Arabella could save someone, couldn’t she?
Maybe. Just maybe.
Once upon a time, deep in a twisting labyrinth of the forest, there was a clearing where they danced, bodies shimmering with every shade, fangs glistening chalk white, arms swaying and hair tossed and fabrics rustling with life.
Other creatures watch with envy and fear, watch the strange, not-quite-dead but not alive monsters dance and drink and bellow.
If they’re lucky, they’ll be eaten by such savage beauty.
If they’re lucky, they’ll catch a glimpse of the wildest pair in the center, the elder and the younger, with matching golden hair and moss-green skin, who dance together like there’s no tomorrow, and maybe there isn’t, for them.
It’s unlikely anyone will ever know what really goes on in the woods, besides old Arabella, and she would never tell. It’s unlikely that people will ever find the riches that float off the creatures' skin and hair and smiles.
Unlikely, but possible.
For now, just don’t go into the woods.