Autumn was a time for mourning, and the woods knew that best.
The woods that morning teetered on the edge of November. Frost lanced the black barked trees like cobwebs, and the dirt was dark and cold. The air tasted of earth. A low fog hemmed the roots of the trees, slipping between dim briars. Too slow for the eye to catch, under the white autumn sky, the trees stir. Nothing is still in the woods. If you were to listen – really listen – you would hear the choir. The trees were groaning. The leafless bushes creaked, and the fat, blood-filled blackberries sang.
What were they mourning?
Girls. Girls had walked into the forest – young, slim-fingered, light-footed. Barely a brittle leaf broke under their shoes as they stepped through the woods with their baskets. Blackcurrants and apples they would pluck from the trees, and the woods would whisper, Turn back, don’t go deeper. But the girls had all been young, one by one as they came. They did not yet know how to understand the language of the earth. The briars would tangle the girls’ ankles, and the branches would block their way. But nothing helped. They never came home.
There were creatures in the woods, your grandmother told you as she cut the carrots for your meal. She could understand the trees. As you huddled by the cooking fire she would explain, there were creatures in the woods. They were strange beasts, more flora than man, creatures of autumn, hair like moss, fingers like spindles, teeth like needles. They were the ones who were taking the girls.
“Why did the girls go?” you would ask. “How did the creatures lure the girls into those dark woods?”
Your grandmother smiled sadly. “They wanted to go.”
You did not understand until four nights after the equinox. You woke cold in your bed, on the cusp of the morning, and you put on your boots and you put on your coats and you walked into the woods.
Thickets and ferns, hazy with mist, brush you deeper into the woods. The trees turn towards you, watching you walk. They are singing, but you cannot hear. Dawn closes around you, holding you hand, guiding you past thorns and crows, frilled mushrooms, dying autumn flowers.
The creature is dangerous.
You see him now, and you understand. He is just one, though you have been warned of them all. Standing there outside his domain of frost-stamped trees, he stirs to greet you. He has been waiting for you.
He is not what you expected.
The creature survives in the woods as he does not have the material wants of a man. He hunts deer with his hands, and with tools made from their bones. He cooks the flesh over a fire. He does not waste a drop. The sinewy meat, the eyes, the heart. This is how they eat, he tells you. This is how you eat in the woods.
At night the woods are colder than human bones can imagine. The creatures sleeps in a hard bed made of things he had gathered. He crafted it with his hands when he was young. He wove a blanket from nettles – the same that he uses for soups at midday. This is enough for him, but your body aches with cold. You wake with frost in your eyelashes.
The days are spent assembling his home, and the nights are quietly spent in the nettle-bed whose frame is elm and whose mattress is stuffed with crows-feather. Your raw fingers ache from weaving. There are no bricks in the woods. You build with wood, and bone, and clay, and the hides of the animals you hunt.
One day you express your disdain for nettle soup. The creature is surprised. He never knew. You tell him there are plenty of things to eat in the woods, though it seems cold and dead this time of year. You teach him how to know which mushrooms kill, and which taste good in sauce. You tell him about the food you used to eat, and the way your grandmother would cook it. You miss her as you shiver in bed that night.
This is the way the days tumble into November. The creature cooks you mushrooms and you kiss his mouth, lined with needle-teeth. You twist your fingers into his moss-hair. Eyes like fern, apples, lichen, as green as the ground. Under the roof of his half-built house, you take him to his nettle-bed. This is your creature. Under him, your heart splits like a pomegranate between two palms, and the seeds spill out warm.
Twelve days later you see a girl.
You know her. Her mother is a baker. Her hair is as gold as the harvest, and her eyes are wide and wet. She is wrapped in her coat and boots – she would lose them when her body grew used to the cold of the woods, just as yours did. The girl is afraid. She is with a creature like your own, and his spindle-fingers are digging red marks into her arm.
It is now you realise that you have been in these woods before. You escaped alive and forgot all the lessons you had learned.
That evening your creature prepares you a deer with a gravy made from its bones. You tell him about the girl. He says yes, there are plenty. He is new to the woods, but he sees girls here the way he sees squirrels and foxes. He barely remembers a face. They are everywhere, he says, like ants. Some tall and pale like silver birch. Some strong and striking as oak. He shrugs. It is not important. He has carved you a comb from bone, and he begs to brush your hair.
But you do not forget about the girls. When you hunt and when you forage and when you go down to the river to fetch water for the house, you pray to see another one. Sometimes you glimpse the swish of a skirt vanishing into the fog. Sometimes you see the prints of a small boot breaking the frost-hardened earth. You wish to see the golden-haired girl again, and you worry about her like a mother. Soon you get your wish.
There is a tree. It is small and golden, its bark still tender as a sprig. Its leaves are broad and wet. You know it – or you know her. Her mother is a baker. Her bark is not as hard and dead as the rest of the trees in the forest, but when she sings you cannot hear her.
This is when you look around you. The trees, tall, dead, blackened barks crusted with moss and mould look back at you. They had been women once. They had been girls. Once upon an autumn morning, they had each walked into the woods too, just as you had. You wonder when the first trees had arrived. Had this always been happening? Would this happen to you?
You do not take the water home, but you take your hunting knife. You stalk the tracks that left by the creature that had lured the baker’s daughter into the woods. You walk for hours. Eventually you see him in his home. It is older than the house you sleep in. It is huge and ancient, its roots sinking deep into the earth like a fist, and clenching. Many hands had made this home.
When he sees you, he does not fear you. Not even when you plunge your hunting knife into his bark-like skin. He bleeds like a deer. You cut him the way you were taught to cut meat so as not to waste a drop – for the muscle, for the eyes, for the heart. When you find the latter, it is small and withered like the pit of a peach. You swallow it whole.
The winter is spent this way.
You do not return to your nettle-bed. As the days pass, you forget how to find your way back. You sleep in the ferns with your hunting knife, and you eat mushrooms and berries, and the hearts of the creatures you kill. Sometimes you think of your grandmother, and flowers, and strawberries.
As the nights spin into December, the forest becomes harder to navigate. Landmarks are disappearing. Creatures are dying. Slowly, the trees are turning back into girls. You wonder what to do with your creature. You think of his spindle-fingers and his moss-hair and his slow, quiet voice. You wonder if the other creatures carved bone-combs and cooked mushroom sauce. Probably. They look the same.
One day you see him.
The moon hangs over the woods, resting on the trees’ dead branches. He looks up at you. His face shines in the blue light, and his chest rises and falls. You wonder what can be done.