The forest is starving. Overhead the sun dies, bathing the branches in the pink glow of dusk. Walkers do well to avoid these parts but John knows them like the lines of his own face. His trade depends on them. Allerwood Jam sells as far as Netley, so it seemed only natural that his wife and he should move close to the forest’s borders, when they finally decided to settle down. They first met picking raspberries in the bracken behind what is now McCready’s farm. Grace loves natural produce at least as much as he does. Out here, on the outskirts of the village, they are free to live a quiet life, largely separate from the rest of Lynnwood. Almost twenty years later, they have not looked back.
The ground crunches beneath his boots as a wind sighs through the trees, rustling the few leaves and testing the branches. Their creaks carry on the air, a hundred groans bringing the forest to uneasy life. Knotted faces with deep grooves stare at him from the hollows of trunks and on more than one occasion he fancies he sees movement through the black glassy trees. The trees are weary of the winter and he is no different. He can hear it in their creaks as surely as he feels it in his own bones. Stepping around a bend in the path, he emerges into a small clearing.
This is one of his private places. There are several, in the vicinity, from where he harvests fruits and berries the year round: rhubarb in the spring, blueberries and raspberries when summer is high and blackberries in autumn. Sometimes, if the winter is mild or he gets to them early, he finds apples too, but not often, and not this year. This year there is only cold, and death.
He found the rabbit not far from here, almost two weeks ago. Ribs had pressed visibly against its thin underbelly, its black eyes trapped behind a layer of frost. One of its paws had snapped clean off. This in itself was not shocking; he has grown used to such sights over the years. It was the sudden similarities between this dead thing and his daughter that had weighed heavily on him.
The ground is sparse, save a carpet of thin roots, winding their way into the earth. Moving to the edge of the clearing, where the barren undergrowth makes something of a return, he begins his hunt. He cultivates beetroot here, where the shade is weak in the day. The root is hardy, even against the bitter frost. He slips a knife from his long overcoat pocket and begins to scrape at the soil. His fingers are white, or blue. It is hard to tell in the fading light.
He will find the beetroot and return home, before the coldness truly sets in. He left the house first thing this morning and hasn’t seen Bianca since last night, when he tucked her in for bed. He thinks of the rabbit again, and shivers.
Bianca loves beetroot and he won’t disappoint his little one so close to Christmas. Boiled, pickled, in sandwiches and on salads. He would bring her an armful, if he could find it, to keep her strength and her weight up. For several minutes he goes on, his efforts fruitless. The leaves are here but he cannot break through the earth to the taproots. Determined, he takes to stabbing the soil with the knife-blade.
A flash of purple leaps from the earth. His hopes leap with it, only to be dashed when the thing squirms violently from his touch. The fat worm lingers for a moment before burrowing away. The encroaching cold nips at his flesh as, wrapping his overcoat tight around him, he rises from the ground. It is too late now. He will have to return tomorrow, with daylight and a spade, and dig properly.
His teeth chatter, his breath white on the air, as he turns and strides from the clearing, alone except for thin trees and thinner shadows stretching from their trunks.
Grace’s breath clings to the window; a delicate whiteness that turns the glass pane foggy. Her eyes crease then soften as a shadow at the forest’s edge steps out towards her cottage. Its confident stride bears it purposefully closer and she fancies she can see John’s face; the warmth of his brown eyes, his sleek black hair and delicate lips, offset against that proud jaw.
The wind howls, the trees shiver and the man is but a shadow again.
She turns from the window as Bianca’s bedroom door swings open. The cottage is old, its layout mostly confined to the ground floor. There is an attic, where they store furniture, and a small basement filled with their jams. When Bianca is older they might have to address the issue of space but, for now, the build suits them well.
“And what are you doing up, young lady?”
“I had a dream.”
Her daughter stumbles sleepily into her arms. Her pajamas are deceptive but, pressed against her, she is as hard as ice. Bones protrude where there should be soft flesh as she trembles in Grace’s arms. Kneeling down slowly, she reaches out to sweep the hair from the girl’s eyes.
“Let’s get you some blankets to warm you with.”
“No, I’m not cold!”
“Well let’s find some blankets anyway, for me, then. You can tell me about your dream.”
“I was lost in the forest.”
“And what were you doing out in the forest on your own?” she asks, carefully pulling the throw from the sofa. Bianca stands unmoving while she drapes the throw around her daughter’s shoulders.
“I was looking for Dad. It was dark but I could see everything below me clearly. I felt like I was flying.”
“Did you find him?”
“No, but I saw other things, moving between the trees. Swarming like ants, or the spiders you sweep from under my bed. All arms and legs and they were covered in blood –”
“But they were, and when they looked up their eyes were wide and white, so white –”
“Nightmares aren’t real,” she comforts, leading the child over to the glowing fireplace. “And besides, your father will be back soon.” The fire smolders in the hearth. Chunks of charcoal bake in its embers. Already the girl is starting to feel warmer in her arms. “Forget it all, it was just a bad dream.”
“It wasn’t bad.”
“It wasn’t a bad dream. I could feel everything, like it was all me. I was in the trees and the ice and the blood of the things below –”
“Cold but hungry –”
“Stop, Bianca. That’s quite enough of that.”
They sit together by the fire for a while longer, toasting their hands and feet, before she sends the girl back to bed. Not until the bedroom door clicks shut does she move, returning from the crackling fireplace to her previous post at the window. Snow has started falling, blanketing the night-time forest in a crisp white cape. Although she has stood at the window a hundred times before now, she decides the forest looks different tonight. She sends a thought to John, wandering somewhere beneath the old aller trees. She wishes he would hurry up. The beet doesn’t matter anymore. There are other days to forage. It will do more harm than good for him to linger in the dark.
He will be home soon, if he picks up his pace. In a matter of minutes he could find himself looking across a steaming casserole and a generous pint into Grace’s face. Even after twenty-two years, she is no less beautiful than the first day they had met.
He has always felt different to other people. The world is moving faster than he can keep up with. Their traditional ways are almost dead, but the village offers some respite. Here, between the trees, they are free to be themselves. Grace understands this. Tired, hungry and alone in the cold, he has never missed her more.
The wind whines through the treetops, carrying with it a flurry of snow and ice and something else that Midwinter’s evening. He turns in time to see an owl as it soars overhead.
The bird is beautiful. It glides silently, like a ghost, its creamy feathers stark against the blackness of the night sky. There are not many left, now, here or anywhere; ghosts in more than just appearance. Perhaps the cold has driven it here. Perhaps its business is not so different to his own. The night-time forest is full of hunters and their prey.
He is about to resume walking when another shape catches his eyes. Pale against the black night and thin enough that he had taken it for outstretched branches, the silhouette springs from a tree onto the passing bird. The owl’s scream pierces the woods as it is snatched from the sky.
A mass of shadows erupts from the undergrowth around him. Limbs flail like leafless branches, skeletal and pale in the moonlight. Moans of relief rise over desperate gasps. He turns to run, but makes no more than a few steps before long fingers find his neck. They are a woman’s hands, stained red, reminding him of Grace’s fingers, all those years ago, their tips coloured bright with raspberries. Then other hands grasp his arms and the softness of his stomach and he crumples to the earth, blanketed by a frenzy of feverish activity.
Grace has just set a saucepan of water to boil when something scuttles overhead. She shouts as she jumps, knocking the pan to the floor. Warm water spills out, running quickly into the wooden cracks, but her attention is fixed on the ceiling. There is movement in the attic; a definite scrabbling, as though something small is seeking entry to the house. If the squirrels are back, there will be blood on her hands this evening.
Bianca does not seem to have woken, at least. She offers a silent prayer of thanks. It would do the girl’s childish imagination no good to hear the noises petering down from the above.
After a minute of silence she stirs, and in ten steps has retrieved a broom from the utilities cupboard. The broom feels reassuring in her grasp, like it belongs with her, and she it. There isn’t much in the world she can’t shift with this broom, she reminds herself, or else beat senseless. Moving to stand beneath the attic trapdoor, she brings her weapon of choice to bear on the old wood.
Three thuds reverberate throughout the cottage before the trapdoor falls open and a thin ladder slides out. Peering upwards, she places a foot on the first rung.
With a splintered crash the cottage door blows inwards. The window shatters and her world with it, shards of ice and glass scattering across the room. The ceiling spins as she tumbles from the ladder to the floor, her heart hammering in her chest. The cold rushes inside and, with it, a dozen figures.
She guesses a dozen, but there might be more, the room seeming to blur around her. She does see thin arms, long-fingered hands and pale skin made pink and blue from the cold. The icy air fills her eyes and mouth, and with it the sweet tang of spoiled meat. She has smelled it once before, when their dog had crawled beneath the cottage to die three years ago.
One of them hovers by the doorway, neck stretching as it seems to scent the air. Eyes flutter as its mouth opens and in a moment of sickness she feels its hunger inside herself. The room is still spinning, her surroundings stretching, the open mouth gaping wider and wider until there is nothing else but the blackness of its throat, impossibly black, an abyssal blackness with no end.
She has heard tales of the Gluttons, had been warned about them when she was a young girl, but she had never taken them seriously. Perhaps it is the nature of the hungry, to forget. She had heard that before, too, at the Christmas market one year. Witnessing the stark truth of these bony limbs, these wasted arms and mouths dark with old blood, she knows she will never forget again.
She seems to feel their hands on her all once. The famished throw themselves over her, claiming her for their own; joined by every thumbprint, ever finger, every palm wrapped tightly around her skin. She burns with their cold touch. Light flickers overhead as faces swim before it, and she imagines the winter sun, speeding low through the sky, its dappled light fractured by the treetops. In this moment she is one with these ghouls, made whole by their beating hearts, their desperate breaths; their endless hunger on this, the longest night, when the stomachs of every man, woman and child roar in anticipation of the coming festivities.
It is their human hunger, and it is the hunger of the trees around her. Branches bite her arms, and the back of her neck as she tumbles into the cold outside. It is the ravening winter, gnawing at her eyes and hands and the soles of her feet, and the insatiable night, stripping her of sight, of self, of any awareness save that of appetite. She screams, and her voice is voracious. She howls and her song is hunger. She moans and the swarm moans with her; a chorus at once nourished by the abyss and obliterated by it. She lives and dies and feeds in the darkness.
~ Thomas Brown
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