A short piece of mostly fiction.
- The Wood
I haven’t dared to go back, not since I was eleven and we moved away, I don’t want to know if the place is still as magical as I remember it being. It wasn’t a particularly large wood, in fact “wood” is probably too strong a term for this strip of land filled with muddy paths, trees and a couple of burns that rose from the ground randomly in one place and disappeared as quickly the next.
That was only one of the things that made it magical, of course, the mystery collection of streams that were impossible to be sure where they started and where they ended, whether if you climbed far enough through one of the concrete pipes you could come out at another one or just get stuck and have to be Rescued. I was always slightly too claustrophobic to find out.
The memories are magical though, the hours I’d spent tramping through the wood in the hot summer days with my best friend and his dog, climbing trees and picking leaves off of nettles to eat. We knew all the best trees for climbing and had a number of different routes that could be taken up each of them, we also knew where all the best patches of dock leaves were for any accidents involving the nettles.
Perhaps it was magical because of those long summer walks, or the autumn collecting of conquers or the collection of dead wood in the run up to bonfire night, or the open spaces for snowball fights, or the lengthening spring days that kept us there later on each successive night. There was nothing that a pair of adventurous boys wanted the woods could not provide.
But it isn’t just sentimentality or the rose tinted glasses through which we see our youth that made it magical.
There are plenty of people who have their own personal ghost story of the strange and unusual things they have at one time or another encountered. You will have at least one friend who has a friend who tells one. I have no ghost stories, of my own, other than this one and it doesn’t really count.
One late October day, when when autumn had not quite given way to winter but the rain had started to become colder we were playing in the wood. It had been generous already in terms of dead wood waiting to be collected and dragged back to the bonfire location. We had been so prolific, in fact, that my friend’s dad had set up a security lamp outside the house that was triggered by movement (and this was in the days when that technology was new and expensive) to prevent other gangs of bonfire builders from pilfering our stock. In truth we’d probably started collecting weeks before hand, but anyway the wood was denuded of spare branches and we were engaging in a spot of tree climbing to fill in the time before the big day.
It wasn’t until the moment that I started to fall that I realised quite how high up I was. This was an elderberry tree which was old and distinguished but still fruited those bitter-sweet grapes that turned stomachs, I was out on a rather tenuous limb (safe in the knowledge that I was immortal in the way only children can be) and reaching for something. What, exactly, I can’t remember but assume it was a lodged Frisbee or a hanging piece of deadwood that might still make it onto our pyre.
I do remember what happened next in vivid detail. I slipped and lost my grip and spun off of the branch into mid air. My heart leapt into my mouth, I heard my friend cry out in alarm and then the world drifted into a treacle sort of time. I was certainly still falling, I could see the branch moving away from me as I plummeted towards the ground aiming to crack my back on the rocky ground beneath and I could still hear my name being called in alarm. But I felt that I was breathing at a normal pace while the sun was speeding across the sky, that I was outside of time and the result was that I drifted towards the ground like a piece of down on a breeze and my back felt warm.
I landed as if the ground was made of pillows and I had dropped into them from one foot up, not twenty and I heard what sounded like a rush of wing beats though it may have been only my own pounding heart for at that moment time came crashing back into place.
“Shit! Are you OK!?” my friend scampered across to me as I picked myself up as if nothing had happened. I’d honestly hurt myself more from tripping over on the street than this fall. “I’m fine!” I announced cheerily. “That was a big drop.” my friend announced sagely, “Are you sure you’re alright?”
I assured him again that I was OK and we walked off back towards his house at the edge of the wood for dinner and the traditional telling off for forgetting to take our shoes off at the door and trampling mud into his mum’s new carpet. She always had new carpets. I glanced back at the little copse of trees which included the one I had fallen from and something moved. It was, of course, just the movement of bush leaves in the wind but it seemed for a moment that there was a figure there with a broad green wing made of beach leaves. I blinked and it was gone. I only remember the one wing and nothing else about it, other than it was there.
I often think back to that moment and I have never experienced anything quite like it since, maybe because I was slightly more cautious about how far I dared to climb, maybe because it wasn’t long after that we left for pastures new which had trees, around a river, but it wasn’t a wood – at least not to my understanding.
Often I think that two little boys really loved that wood. And the wood really loved us.