This is a selection taken from the stories I wrote between 2003 and 2011. Nearly all of them have been previously published, many in publications no longer extant. Where they are still available in existing books or magazines, sufficient time has elapsed to permit their re-publication without fear of ethical impropriety or breach of contractual terms. Check the Blog Archive at the bottom of the page for individual titles.

Please be aware that each story was written by the person I was at the time. In a sense, therefore, each one was written by somebody different. None of them was written by the person I am now.

Anybody wanting to view my novel Odyssey can do so here. I’ve set the price very low because I’m more interested in the story being read than in making money out of it. It’s about a goddess and her rabbit companion taking a mortal man on a journey to teach him a few lessons about the nature of reality and higher consciousness, and it's probably more entertaining than I make it sound. I never was any good at selling myself. The Gift Horse, a story of reincarnation and karmic balancing, is also now available at the same place.

October 15, 2010

Whitesytch Wood.

Whitesytch Wood exists. The characters and dog also existed. The curious incidents happened as described, as did the walk at midnight on All Hallows Eve. The rest is fiction. Probably.

It was first published in Encounters Magazine in July this year.

Approximate reading time: 25-30 minutes.

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Gregory Jordan loved woods. He always had. He’d been brought up on a suburban housing estate placed at the furthest edge of the city environs. The fence at the end of his long back garden had been the very boundary of civilised suburbia, and beyond it had lain the impenetrable depths of a wild and ancient wood.

And what a fabulous wood it had been: rich, mysterious and compelling. The trees were massive, with all-enveloping crowns and gnarled old trunks that had folds and grooves and strange protuberances standing out in gruesome relief. Some of the shapes looked like faces. Most of them were ugly, and some of them looked unfriendly. He’d regarded them often with a mixture of suspicion and fascination, but they hadn’t bothered him. He’d known well enough that the trees couldn’t move, so neither could the faces.

There were a couple of footpaths running through it, and Gregory occasionally took one of them as a short cut to school. They were the only means of making progress in this dark and dappled world. Either side of them the woodland floor was a dense mass of undergrowth that prevented movement by anything other than the small animals he knew must live there.

On one occasion he’d found the entrance to a small tunnel that burrowed through the densely packed brambles. He had crawled in to investigate. Being a small boy, he’d managed to squeeze himself along it, assuming that it must have been made by a badger or a fox. He had come to a point where it branched into two forks, and his way had been blocked by a dead rat lying at the junction. The incessant rippling of its skin had told Gregory that it was full of maggots performing their natural role by gorging themselves on what was left of the defunct rodent. He’d found both options open to him repulsive. Neither crawling over it nor moving it out of the way appealed to the sensitive child and he had retreated backwards with some difficulty.

But that was a minor incident. The wood had provided the perfect playground for an imaginative young boy, enabling him to don the mantle of noble knight, dashing outlaw or fearless jungle fighter with great authority and realism. And that wasn’t all. He’d felt the peace of the place too and, beyond that, the harmony of nature and a sense that the wood had a life that was somehow greater in its whole than the sum of its parts. The faces on the trees might not offer any physical threat, but he was sure they watched him. And he only went into the wood during the day. He never presumed to enter it after dark. Never.

Sadly, Gregory had been granted only a few years to enjoy his sylvan idyll. His family had moved closer to the centre of the city when he was eleven and his arboreal playground had been replaced by crowded housing, an old slag heap and a disused railway line. The wood soon passed into history, put fondly away in the box of treasured childhood memories along with innocence, untrammelled joy and a belief in Father Christmas.

* * *

It was nearly twenty years later when he moved with his wife and dog to a quiet village in the English countryside. The community was friendly and functional, and the surrounding landscape typical of the English Midlands: gently rolling, pastoral farmland with patchwork fields grazed by herds of Friesian milkers. There were plenty of walks and several empty meadows where his dog could run unimpeded. And there was a narrow stream meandering along the bottom of a shallow valley where he could wile away the odd summer evening in a setting of blissful tranquillity.

But it was finding Whitesytch Wood that pleased him most. It was the first time since he’d moved house at the age of eleven that he’d been blessed with a wood on the doorstep. In fact, it wasn’t quite that close. It was about a mile away down a rarely used lane that ran off the top end of the village. But that was close enough. The walk only added to the pleasure of going there.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite up to the standard of his legendary wildwood either. There were plenty of massive stumps testifying to the pedigree of the place, but the trees that stood there now were mostly young conifers. The undergrowth had been largely cleared and access to all parts was easy. It was obvious that the owner had felled the old standards and replaced them with fast-growing varieties to make a quicker profit. Gregory didn’t like that. He knew it was one of the ways in which nature was being unduly exploited for commercial gain. But at least it was a wood, and that was better than nothing.

Em loved it too. Em was Gregory’s young border collie dog. Like all of her breed, she was intelligent, inquisitive and brimful of seemingly boundless energy. She never stopped moving except when she was asleep or waiting to be fed. The sparse undergrowth in Whitesytch Wood suited her perfectly. She could explore the myriad scents and chase startled rabbits to her heart’s content. She never caught any, which pleased Gregory, but neither did she tire of the innocent enjoyment she got from trying. No doubt the chase was the main thing anyway, and it gave Gregory great delight to see her bright-eyed, active and happy.

That was why it seemed so unaccountable when she stopped on the track one day and stared dead ahead. She never did that and he peered hard in the same direction, curious to know what could be holding her interest. He could see nothing moving and nothing out place.

She was in front of him at the time and he walked past her, assuming it would break her mysterious reverie and rouse her to frenetic activity again. It didn’t. She continued to stand stock still and he walked on.

The track ran in a straight line and slightly downhill for about a hundred yards, before making a sharp right turn. That was the direction she was looking in, but still he could see nothing. He called to her when he was half way down but she offered no response. And yet it seemed that she was not refusing him, rather that she was oblivious to his presence.

Gregory found her behaviour inexplicable, but continued to walk down the track to see how long it would take her to follow him. He arrived at the bend and looked back. She was still standing in the same place, rigid as a piebald statue, and Gregory found her unaccustomed stillness so strange as to verge on the unnerving. She’d never done anything like that before.

And then he had a sudden thought, or maybe “impression” would be the right word. For that’s what it was, an inner sense that there was something close by that his dog could see but he couldn’t. He was standing on the apex of the bend and there was a grassy area between the track and a bank of shrubs. He suddenly felt that the mystery lay there and sensed that, if he walked onto the grass, it would disturb whatever was holding Em’s attention and release her.

He tried it and it worked. The moment he set foot onto the small, green space, Em came to life again. She trotted towards him as though there had been no break in her activity, stopping to sniff unconcernedly at little points of interest along the way. Whatever spell had been holding her captive, it was gone now.

Gregory was intrigued and looked around. The air was still and there was no sound other than the occasional trilling of birds hidden among the foliage. There was nothing visible to explain his dog’s strange behaviour, and none of his physical senses betrayed anything out of the ordinary. Em’s extraordinary diversion from the norm would have to remain a mystery.

The episode was only the first of several odd little incidents that happened during his frequent forays to Whitesytch Wood. On one occasion he saw a tree branch swing suddenly and unaccountably through ninety degrees, gradually coming to rest in its rightful position. It seemed as though it had been held at right angles and then released. But what could have held it? When he investigated he found that the branch was too high to be reached by even a very tall man, and there was nothing close to the tree that could have been responsible.

Another time he saw a small cloud of smoke, or mist maybe, drift suddenly across the path in front of him. There was no steady stream as there would have been had a fire been lit somewhere, just a single, small cloud that appeared and was gone in a couple of seconds. And he often felt that he was being watched, and even followed, by something undefined but large and invisible.

Fortunately, Gregory wasn’t a nervous type and his odd encounters with the unexplained did nothing to diminish his enthusiasm for trips to the wood with his canine companion. He never felt threatened in any way. Not, that is, until he broke his childhood rule and went into the wood at night. And he only did that at the behest of a young friend who did not share his inner conviction that other forms of reality lie beyond the surface of the natural world.

The house next door to his was owned by a widow of around sixty. Dorothy Watkin was a simple and irrepressibly affable soul who liked nothing better than to be useful. Generous to a fault, she was the sort who would cook meals for tramps and give them clothing from her late husband’s wardrobe.

She had three grown up sons. The two older ones had families of their own and lived some miles away in the nearby town. The youngest, Mark, was unmarried and lived at home.

Mark was in his early twenties. He was highly intelligent and had gained a bachelor’s degree through the Open University. But he’d never lived anywhere other than in the village, and what he’d inherited of his mother’s affability sat naturally with a generally unsophisticated view of the world. He loved mysteries, and made an enthusiastic audience for Gregory’s tales of strange happenings in Whitesytch Wood.

One afternoon in early October, as the two of them sauntered down the darkening lane and sniffed the first hints of wood smoke, Mark made a suggestion. He’d always loved Halloween, he said. Why didn’t they go into the wood at midnight on 31st October?

Gregory agreed immediately, simply to avoid the embarrassment of seeming foolish or timid. But a small voice called out to his conscious mind from somewhere deep inside. He knew that it was the voice of his childhood instinct and chose to ignore it. He hadn’t yet recognised that children can sometimes understand the more subtle aspects of reality better than adults can, and that their natural intuition gets blocked by the process of growing up. Gregory was thirty years old, and at that age a man is expected to behave like an adult. So what harm could it do to indulge Mark’s wish to visit Whitesytch Wood at the witching hour of All Hallows Eve?

The agreement made, the matter wasn’t raised again until lunchtime on the fateful Saturday. Mark came around and reminded his neighbour of their arrangement. Gregory hadn’t forgotten it and said that he would call at eleven thirty to give them plenty of time to be in the wood before the clock struck twelve.

He felt uneasy at the prospect of entering a wood at night. He’d always felt that woods had two spirits: the daytime one that was generally benevolent, and its wilder, more unpredictable brother who took over when darkness fell. Trees always seemed different at night, even the ones that stood alone. The thought of being surrounded by hundreds of them, imbued with a dark spirit that might be less than friendly, was uncomfortable. He shrugged it off as we all would. He knew, as we all do, that the fear of nocturnal woods stems from nothing more than a primitive race memory. Woods used to hold real, physical terrors at night and our genes have never forgotten it. The scientific age says so. There was no threat; it would just be a bit of fun.

Gregory knocked on his neighbour’s door shortly before 11.30. Mark opened it and stepped out. Both men were well prepared for their adventure, suitably wrapped in warm clothing and sensibly shod in strong boots. And they had both thought to bring a torch. The night was cold, crisp and clear, but they realised that there would be little light penetrating the canopy of even a young conifer wood. Gregory had decided not to bring Em along, even though his wife had suggested it and the dog had looked distinctly put out at being left behind. His sense of disquiet encouraged him to err on the side of caution. Whilst there was the slightest possibility of risk, he didn’t want Em to be subjected to it.

They walked quickly out of the village and turned along Whitesytch Lane, engaging in trivial conversation through steaming breath. Mark remarked on the coldness of the night and the likelihood of frost before dawn. And then he asked, in his engagingly childlike way,

“Do you think we’ll see anything?”

“Doubt it,” replied Gregory.

“Hope we do.”

“What do you expect to see?”

“Dunno. Ghosties, ghoulies and four-leggedy beasties!”

Mark’s choice of phrase was trite and predictable, and Gregory replied in similar vein.

“How about witches in black cloaks going in and out of a mysterious house that wasn’t there yesterday and won’t be there again tomorrow?”

“Yeah, that’ll do.”

They fell silent again until they reached the entrance to the wood. Gregory shone his torch at his watch. It was thirteen minutes to twelve.

“You ready?” he asked.

“Yup.”

“C’mon then.”

They stepped over the shallow gully that marked the threshold and entered the darkness of Whitesytch Wood, their two torches lighting up the track ahead of them.

Gregory expected to feel apprehensive, but he didn’t. He felt nothing at all - no sense of menace, no irrational fears and no sense of any presence, threatening or otherwise. He was disappointed. A small tingle of fear can be quite enjoyable as long as it stays within manageable proportions. That was what they were there for. What sort of an adventure would it be if there wasn’t the slightest hint of anything to set their nerves on edge?

He listened for the hoot of an owl or the scrabbling of some small animal going about its business. Nothing. The only sounds were those made by their boots snapping the dry twigs that lay on the path. There wasn’t even a breeze to persuade the branches to whisper behind their backs.

When they reached the bend in the track which had been the object of Em’s mysterious attention back in the summer, they stopped for a few moments and shone their torches in all directions. Nothing there either. No feelings, nothing to see, nothing to kindle any sense of mystery. The only impression gathering weight in Gregory’s mind was that he had been mistaken. Nocturnal woods were just daytime woods with the lights turned off. Any notion of dual spirits, menace and parallel dimensions seemed preposterous. He suggested as much when he said,

“Bit boring really, isn’t it?”

“Can’t be twelve o’clock yet though,” replied his companion.

Gregory looked at his watch again.

“No. Seven minutes to go.”

Mark remained enthusiastic and suggested they go further. They turned the bend and walked along a flat, straight section, passing the tree whose branch had swung so mysteriously. There was no movement there now and they soon reached another bend where the track turned left to continue its progress down a short incline. That required a little care in the dark, but they managed it safely enough. They were now at the lowest part of the wood and Mark suggested they wait there until midnight. There were still two minutes to go and Gregory agreed.

And so they waited in silence for a full five minutes. By the end of it Gregory was bored and wanted to go home. He looked at his watch again.

“Three minutes past,” he said. “Looks like we’re out of luck.”

Mark reluctantly agreed and they decided to call it a night.

They made their way back up the slope, turned the corner and retraced their steps along the cross section. They both mumbled that the whole exercise had been a bit pointless and Mark was clearly disappointed. He wasn’t the type to get bored easily. Gregory was. He just wanted to get home to a hot drink and bed. He ignored the grassy patch when they reached the second bend and turned left to walk the final two or three hundred yards.

And that was when he felt the sudden thud of apprehension hit his stomach and spread rapidly to engulf his body in goose bumps.

He stopped and shone the torch around. There was nothing to see and no sound to disturb the stillness of the night.

“What?” asked Mark.

“Don’t know,” answered Gregory. “I suddenly felt something.”

“What, something touched you?”

“No, no - not physically. Just a feeling, inside, like we’re not alone.”

“Oh, c’mon Greg, you’re just trying to spook me, aren’t you? Good try, mate.”

“I’m not actually, no. I really felt something, very strongly.”

“Let’s hang on then, see if anything happens.”

Mark’s enthusiasm was irrepressible, but he hadn’t felt what Gregory had.

“I don’t think we should,” replied his companion. “It doesn’t feel good. Trust me.”

“You serious?”

“Dead right I’m serious. I think I’d rather leave, and I think we should stick together.”

“But we came here to see something – experience something – whatever. We can’t leave now, just when something’s happening.”

Gregory had been looking about him during the conversation. He was having second thoughts about woods at night. The lack of any physical sound or movement had not dimmed the sense of menace that was gripping him, or eased the prickling sensation on his skin. If anything, they were getting stronger. He turned to his friend and thought for a second.

“OK, let’s put it this way,” he said. “I don’t like this and I’m not staying here. You can if you want. But I don’t fancy walking the rest of the way on my own and I don’t think you should be alone either.”

Although Mark had felt nothing himself, something of Gregory’s genuine concern was starting to communicate itself to him. He began to feel apprehensive too, and his show of reluctance was not entirely genuine as he muttered his agreement.

They turned to walk on, and then looked around when they heard a noise behind them. They shone their torches at the empty path and the trees standing still and inscrutable around them.

“What did that sound like to you?” asked Gregory.

“Like somebody breathing out – only louder,” replied Mark.

Gregory agreed and they stood in silence for several seconds. There was no repetition.

“Probably a gust of wind,” he suggested, even though he didn’t believe it.

Hearing the mysterious noise had removed all traces of Mark’s earlier enthusiasm. There was something fundamentally immature about him. He was the sort who rushed into adventures easily and rushed back out again as soon as they became difficult. His apprehension was already beginning to grow into the first stirrings of panic.

“Let’s run,” he said as they turned to continue their walk towards the perimeter.

“No,” replied the more controlled Gregory. “It’s getting foggy and I don’t fancy falling. We can speed up a bit though.”

All the time they’d been speaking, Gregory had felt the goose bumps getting stronger. And the mist that was now thickening around them seemed to be a part of it, whatever “it” was. As they walked on with quickened stride, the sensation began to change. It wasn’t just on the outside any more. It was seeping inside him, carried there perhaps by the damp air that he was taking in with every shortened breath. And something of the first glimmer of understanding was coming with it, though it was still vague.

He began to sense that some channel was being opened, some line of communication between him and something hideous. Oddly, it didn’t feel malevolent; but it did feel destructive. He had an image of a big cat stalking its prey. The predator feels no hatred for the hapless object of its lethal intent, merely hunger that nature dictates must be sated.

“At this pace we should be out in a minute or two at most,” he said.

But panic was beginning to grow in Gregory too, and he was struggling to suppress it. He knew that panic destroys logic and dissipates the vital energy of will. The twin forces needed to work together if the two men were to avoid being trapped and caught by something that was capable of doing them great harm. Exactly what, he didn’t yet know; but the situation was beginning to feel that serious.

Mark was younger than him, and taller. His pace was quicker and longer. Gregory was concerned that he was getting ahead and might break into a trot.

“Don’t run,” he said. “Whatever you do, you mustn’t fall.”

Mark eased his pace slightly and allowed Gregory to catch up.

“OK,” he said. “But I don’t like this Greg. Won’t be long though, eh?”

The older man could see that his young companion was beginning to crack. The transition from easy enthusiasm to cold terror had been remarkably rapid. Gregory realised that whatever was gripping his own consciousness had got inside Mark too; and he realised that the excitable young man lacked the strength to resist it. If they were to escape their fate, the means of doing so would be down to him.

They hurried on in silence and Gregory tried to concentrate on anything that would close down the channel that was filling his mind and body. He didn’t want to see what it was about to show him. He didn’t want to know. He just wanted to be out of the wood.

On and on they went and Gregory began to suspect that rather more than two minutes had elapsed. Mark was aware of it too.

“How long have we been walking?” he asked.

His voice was beginning to tremble and carried the tone of someone on the verge of hysteria.

“Don’t know. Seems a long time, doesn’t it? Probably just an illusion. Keep going.”

By now Gregory was trembling too. He told himself it was just the cold getting to him. He knew it wasn’t. He felt hot. He knew that it was some horrible influence at work. He fought back the urge to turn around, lie down and give in. Gregory wasn’t the sort to give in, but he’d never felt anything as strong or insidious as this before.

They carried on walking. Mark began to blubber and mumble incoherently. Still the track went on endlessly. The few feet they could see through the mist showed no sign of the gully that would signal the exit from the nightmare. And the view seemed to be getting shorter as the mist continued to thicken

And then Gregory heard a dog bark. He grabbed Mark’s arm and stopped.

“Listen,” he said.

Mark was sniffing and shaking like a frightened child. There it was again. Definitely a dog’s bark, and it sounded like Em. But how could that be? She was at least a mile away and shut in the house. Some instinct made him shine the torch at the ground. There was the gully. They were at the edge of the wood. Mark saw it too and they looked at each other briefly. They moved to step across it – and froze. Neither of them was able to take the one step that would make them safe.

Gregory had known the same feeling before. He had a fear of heights and had experienced that strange phenomenon in which it’s possible to climb so far up a ladder and then be quite unable to go any further. This was the same. No matter how hard he pushed himself, his legs simply wouldn’t make the necessary movement. He tried going back a little and taking a run at it. It didn’t work. As soon as he got close, the strength seeped from his legs and he came to a halt.

He was breathing hard and the power that had invaded the core of his being was getting stronger by the second. Mark started to cry openly and sank to his knees, asking in a hopeless tone what the hell was going on. Gregory forced himself to think. But logical thought was becoming impossible, replaced by incoherent mental ramblings that produced nothing but a sense of helplessness

He felt himself weakening as the power continued to strengthen its grip. He couldn’t resist it any longer. He knew it was what was holding them there, blocking the passage of will from their brains to their legs. He felt like a fly in a spider’s web, waiting to be eaten. The power, it seemed, was in full control. Struggle was pointless. Some dreadful fate awaited them. There was nothing else.

But the power had a weakness of its own. In opening the channel to make its attack, it also allowed its own intentions to become evident. As Gregory let go of resistance, he began to understand what was happening. He knew that the spirit of the wood was weak itself, weak from lack of nourishment. He knew that it wanted to take from them their very essence - their vitality, their will and their energy, all those things that make the living truly alive. He knew that if they couldn’t get across the perimeter they would die, or at least be reduced to pale, pointless shadows of their former selves. But he also saw the limit of their attacker’s control over them.

He reached down and shook Mark by the shoulders.

“Get up,” he said urgently. “Come on. Get up. Now.”

Mark had reached that point where he felt too weak to get up, but he was also too weak to disobey a command. He climbed slowly to his feet.

“Take your coat off,” ordered Gregory.

“Why?”

“Don’t argue, just do it.”

Mark began to do as he was told. Gregory was already holding his own coat and grabbed Mark’s as soon as both arms were out of their sleeves. He tied one sleeve of his own to one of Mark’s with a firm reef knot. Then he gave one end of the makeshift rope to his friend and barked another order.

“Walk backwards across the gully.”

“I can’t.”

“Try.”

Mark tried and stopped inches from it.

“Told you, I can’t”

“Is that as far as you can go?”

“Yes.”

Mark looked enquiringly into Gregory’s eyes.

“OK,” said Gregory. ”Whatever you do, don’t let go of the coat. Do you understand?”

Mark continued to look at him, helpless and uncomprehending. He said nothing.

“Do you understand? Grip the coat firmly. Don’t let it go.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Push you over the threshold. Don’t let go of the coat.”

A look of hope entered Mark’s eyes. He nodded. Gregory pushed him and he fell backwards into the mist. Gregory peered hard and shone the torch at where he assumed his companion had fallen. He could see nothing except the white vapour swirling in the beam of light. He shouted.

“Now, pull me across.”

Nothing happened for several seconds. Gregory became anxious. He shouted again, gripping the sleeve of his coat and pulling it gently to make sure that the other end was still held. Suddenly he lurched forward from the strength of an almighty tug and fell heavily next to his companion. They were both on the other side of the gully. He lay there for a few seconds, an immense sense of relief filling his mind. He expected to feel triumphant, but he didn’t.

Mark sat up and looked around. He didn’t feel frightened any more. Shaken and astonished, stunned even, but not actually frightened. Suddenly, there was nothing to be frightened of. His spirits were returning as quickly as they had faded. He spoke first.

“How did you know what to do?”

Gregory turned over onto his back and looked at the stars. There was no sign of mist. The air was as clear as it had been on the way out.

“I read its mind, for want of a better way of putting it. I knew what it was doing to us, so I knew how to get over it.”

Mark’s juvenile sense of excitement was back in full flow and he wanted to know everything. What had it been doing to them? And what was “it” anyway? Gregory felt weary but explained it as well as he could.

“It got into that part of our brain that generates fear. It knew that fear makes you mentally weak – more easily manipulated. By the time we got to the edge of the wood – even in those short couple of minutes – we’d developed massive amounts of fear; and that fear had generated a desperate need: the need to get out of the wood. Somehow, it turned that need into illusion - several illusions actually.

“First, there was the optical illusion that the path was never ending. We couldn’t see the gully that was in front of us all the time. Then there was the physical illusion that we were still walking when we weren’t. We must have been standing on the edge of the wood for about ten minutes. It was bloody lucky that we heard the dog bark. That one simple, beautiful little sound reconnected us with the outside world so that we could see where we were.

“But then there was the really clever bit: the mental illusion. It made us believe, somewhere in our subconscious minds, that the edge of the wood was an impenetrable barrier. If somebody told you to run into a brick wall your brain wouldn’t let you do it. Your muscles would refuse to move before you got there. That’s why we couldn’t step over the gully. We believed that we would just be kicking a brick wall. I knew I couldn’t get over that one, even though I was aware of it; the illusion was too strong.

“Then I realised something. My brain might not let me walk into a wall, but it wouldn’t stop me pushing someone else into it. That was the way out: me to push, you to pull. And I thought we’d better have a makeshift rope to be on the safe side. I knew I wouldn’t be able to reach across the barrier and I didn’t know whether you’d still be too much affected to reach across it as well.”

“Brilliant,” said Mark with undisguised admiration. “Bloody brilliant mate. You’re a genius. So what was this ‘it’ that was attacking us?”

“The spirit of the wood – the genus loci in its most literal form. It let us get in, but it wouldn’t let us leave. It wanted our energy, our life force.”

“Bastard!”

“Not really. I felt its hunger. The real bastard is the bloke who cut the trees down and replanted with conifers. He didn’t kill it, you see. He just took all the energy out and replaced it with scraps. And now it’s desperately hungry, hungry for the life it probably had for thousands of years.”

Gregory continued to lie on the edge of the road admiring the stars that he’d thought he might never see again. Mark put his coat on and sat thinking for a while.

“So what would have happened to us if we hadn’t got out?” he asked eventually.

“Don’t know exactly. We’d have been gradually drained over the next few hours probably, the course of the night maybe. I don’t know how long. Then we’d have ended up dead or gibbering morons I suppose.”

“So why hasn’t it happened to anybody else? Other people must have been in there at night, lamping for rabbits and so on.”

“I suppose we picked the right night. Halloween, the time when the veil between this world and others is said to be at its thinnest. It probably wouldn’t happen any other time. Let’s hope nobody goes in there next year, or that the wood is a bit less hungry by then.”

The two men were silent for a while. Mark looked with fascination into the empty darkness of Whitesytch Wood while Gregory continued to watch the stars. He was conscious of a curious paradox: how far our own dimension stretches, and how close can be the others of which we are blithely unaware. He began to feel cold and sat up.

“I think it’s time we went home,” he said.

And so they walked off down the lane, leaving the dark and silent mass of Whitesytch Wood receding in their wake. Mark looked back once. Gregory didn’t.

The lights were on in Gregory’s house when he arrived home. His wife was still up. The first few minutes after opening the front door were spent dealing with a mad flurry of tail wagging, squirming, leaping and licking from a dog who loved him madly. And then he told his wife the story.

Her reaction was mixed. She frowned a few times, said ‘hmm...’ occasionally, and asked whether he and Mark had eaten any wild mushrooms. But she did admit that Em had seemed unusually agitated for a while shortly after midnight, and had barked a couple of times at around twelve fifteen. No description of Gregory’s feelings of gratitude towards his dog need be attempted.

He and Em never did go to Whitesytch Wood again. He felt reasonably confident that the disturbing events of Halloween were not likely to be repeated during the daylight hours, if at all. But he couldn’t be certain. And he remembered the episode on the track that day, when Em had been held rigid by some invisible force. Even if he were in no danger, the same might not hold true for his dog.

And so their rambles became restricted to the lanes and empty fields, as well as the occasional stroll along the bank of the stream. He could see the wood in the distance from some of the higher parts of the landscape and truly wished it well. And he mused often on the tendency in humans to treat nature as something to be exploited for the sake of convenience or commercial expediency. Though no longer a Christian, the words attributed to the crucified Jesus sometimes occurred to him. “Father, forgive them: for they know not what they do”.

He had a feeling that Mother Nature might not be so generous. He had, after all, been given the benefit of personal experience.

4 comments:

Della said...

Wonderfully subtle and suggestive, Jeff, I quite enjoyed it. Your characters should meet one day over a drink and compare stories :) Hope you are well and find the next few months bearable. My bleak time is around February/March.

JJ Beazley said...

Thank you, Della. I sometimes think all I am is characters - and they meet every night over several drinks. Sorry about your bleak time. You can always e-mail me and talk vacations, if it helps.

Jeanne said...

Another great tale. Have you ever published a collection of your tales?

JJ Beazley said...

I don't really want to go down the route of self-publication, Jeanne. It seems a little egotistical and I wouldn't have a clue how to market it. Not my field. I did have a leading small press publisher moot the idea of a single author collection once, but then I fell out with them. That's why I now put the previously published stories on the second blog. I also have other favourite stories that continue to get rejected, but I don't want to publish those on the blog because of the First Rights problem.

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I've never had money because I've never been driven by money. I received little formal education beyond the age of sixteen, which isn't such a bad thing since you get a different angle on life that way. Learning what you want and need to learn often reveals things that the system's road keeps hidden.
JJ Beazley asserts his ownership of copyright in all works of fiction and non-fiction contained herein unless otherwise stated. Feel free to quote anything if you want to, but please don't nick a story and claim it for your own. That would compromise my chances of getting an anthology published and I'd be a bit miffed.



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