Folklore Short: The Forest That Feeds

Folklore Short: The Forest That Feeds

The forest. The forest, the men gone missing, the seasons. And she.

The men devour the forest, yet fear it when it begins to devour them back. As autumn turns sharp, the forest creeps past the unspoken boundaries of the rest of the year and into their backyards, lawns neatly trimmed underneath, covered in the sudden onset of fallen leaves, scattered bonfire ash, tiny, brittle animal bones left behind. The forest is full of teeth and carnivorous, hunger never sated. It awakens from a lulled sleep, peaceful to a fault, with a ravenous appetite and a myriad of creeping things echoing the wicked beat of its cold heart.

The men that feast on the forest in the spring sometimes disappear before autumn comes. Their voices are mimicked between the trees, dodging out of view with a face not-quite-right trailing the rest of the party until at last they realize someone is missing once they’ve reached the edge. By then, it is too late. They do not fear enough, in the spring, giddy boys with their toy guns game—hunting and not knowing what it truly is that they are killing. They whistle back to the birds, they crack bones and branches beneath their feet, they are ignorant and unaware. In the spring, the caves are just caves, the deer are just deer, the trees are asleep yet they listen as they dream, though no one knows what they dream about. The men’s crimes do not go unnoticed, though the forest lies in wait. It is a patient hunter, a beast of stealth.

Autumn arrives warm and turns sharp again, and again, the men have spent the rest of the year forgetting. They have traipsed the forest carelessly, leaving accidental pieces of themselves behind, a coat button, a mitten string, a lunch wrapper, a shotgun shell casing buried in the soft silt of the river-bed. The forest has made a collection of these lost things; objects that make their owners, forgotten owners, easier to find. The town is not vast, but the forest sees with things that are not eyes. The forest has no eyes, but it grows new teeth every year. Some say the teeth look like jagged headstones, but there is no way to be sure.

She smells sharp, endless autumn on the wind before anyone else. She boards up her windows and brings in her herbs and lights the fire in the hearth. It stays lit until winter is over. She sprinkles salt across her windowsills and tucks lavender beneath her pillows. She burns ceder-wood in the fireplace and sprinkles rosemary on the logs. She respects and fears the forest, and the forest respects and avoids her. When the carcasses wash up on her porch with the rains, she buries them dutifully in the church cemetery and lights another candle. Her kitchen is simply lit candles now. There is an understanding.

The neat rows of houses, stick-straight where hers leans like a gnarled oak, even-built while hers has too many limbs and mismatched boards and a crooked sidewalk, are the last to sense the change in the wind. They shuffle their children indoors but abandon their gardens to colloquial hurricane season. Winds knock at bare windows, teeth tapping glass, just the tree branches, just the wind. Prayers to the church bells tolling, not knowing whether it is wind or human or monster tolling them, fear as the men recollect their lost belongings in separate rooms in separate houses, fragile leaves shaking in hidden basements forgetting that the forest has roots.

This is when hands that are not human begin to rap at the front doors, seeking shelter, begging entry, too-wide smiles stretched across faces that were human once, but are not anymore. They look like friends. They look like neighbors. They borrow the voices of the panicked and wield them as weapons. They must be invited inside. One must not invite them inside. The men are weak-willed at the sight of their lost hunters, friends, neighbors, party-members. Every now and again, they break. They throw open the door and the forest devours them, though no one has seen this happen. It is bad luck to watch, and the neighborhood turns dread faces towards murals of spring and envision the hay fields in bloom to the soundtrack of wind and wailing. Imagination is worse than sight, they think, yet dare not disobey her instructions. She is the one who warned them not to watch, and they are sure there is a reason. A good reason. Autumn has buried logic in its graves and brought an unfamiliar, fearful wild, rapping on doors night after night, whispering secrets into the howling wind that echo in frightened ears.

The creeping things retreat with the first snowfall. If the men are lucky, the snow falls light and lovely at the end of November and holidays bring the gift of forgetting. If the men are not lucky, the snow stays away until the New Year, and the forest and the creeping things, long-limbed and bloody-mouthed with stringy smiles and vacant eyes, drive the men wild at their doorsteps through the bitter, snow-less winter months. The forest is composed of teeth and creeping things and madness, and it knows how to use all three.

When the snow melts and spring blows in, and the rivers run clear, and the forest retreats to sleep, some of the men are replaced. The men who have survived autumn forget, and the men who have not yet seen the forest’s teeth do not know, and the hunting continues another year. And she can be found in the church graveyard, burying last autumn’s carcasses in the thawing ground.