The woods stretched away from the farm and into forever.
Madi grabbed a crooked switch from the ground and swatted at weeds and spider webs as she followed the pine straw-carpeted trail. Trees—mostly pines, but oaks and black walnut and white ash, too—loomed on either side of the path, taller even than the silent, lightning-scarred sentinel upon the hill. She wondered if the blighted oak had once been part of the forest, separated from its ilk when the farm was raised. If the oak had not been struck by lightning, would it have grown as large and strong as the rest of the woods? The trees here were healthy and proud, not twisted and mean-spirited and cruel. They needed not whisper secrets and were silent save for the rush of breeze through the leaves.
Soon, she heard the gurgling of the creek, and she quickened her pace. The worn footpath cut towards the cold, rushing creek and a rickety wooden bridge from which she sometimes fished or tossed skipping stones. For as long as she could remember, Pa promised he was going to repair the old, rotting bridge. “Sooner or later,” he said, “someone’s gonna fall straight through, down into the creek, I don’t take hammer and nail to that bridge soon.” But the creek water was so shallow in places that Madi imagined it could be crossed on foot without worry, and few people ever crossed the bridge, anyway, except maybe the grizzled trader man who brought canned food and tools and clothing loaded onto his mule-drawn wagon.
Pa didn’t like the old man much, even though he bartered with him from time to time when he came ‘round. It was a way of doing business most folk didn’t believe in any more, Pa said, especially when they could just hop in the truck and drive to Wal-Mart for the supplies they needed. Pa said ‘Riah followed other old customs—old beliefs–and he didn’t want the trader man talking to Madi. On more than one occasion, Pa had run ‘Riah off when he tried to share a few whispered words with the girl, but the old man always returned a few weeks later, leading his hobbled wagon out of the woods.
Madi stepped upon the bridge and crossed to mid-point. The feel of the splintered wood beneath her bare feet was comforting in a way. Familiar. Between the planks of the bridge she saw the water below. She leaned upon the rail and looked over the edge. The creek wound past heavy stones and the roots of trees exposed by the washing away of soil. The water was so clear she could see a few skinny fish darting back and forth, and if she had set her mind on the task she could have counted the smooth creek bed pebbles. Water striders sliced lines across the surface, and dragonflies danced in the air.
Dragonflies—snake doctors, Pa called them. Whenever you saw one, you could be sure a copperhead or water moccasin lurked nearby.
But she didn’t see a snake as she peered over the edge of the bridge.
Instead, she saw a boy.
“Hey, down there,” Madi called.
Was he ever handsome! Madi gasped at the sight of him and felt both ashamed and excited by the feeling. The boy looked to be around her age, maybe a year older or younger, but no more than that. His jeans and tee shirt were wash worn and faded and threadbare, but he had refined, delicate features—the unkempt blonde hair and large blue eyes like a fairytale prince.
He stood just inside the treeline, and shadow dappled his smooth, pale skin like shifting bruises. He watched the creek water run past, staring intently, as if he expected to see something of great value sweep through the cold current at any moment.
“Hey, down there,” Madi called again. Her cheeks and the back of her neck felt warm, and she felt the corners of her mouth raise into a smile she just couldn’t help. “Didn’t you hear me?”
The boy looked up, squinting and raising a hand to shade his eyes from the sun. A smile played upon his lips for just a moment, then slipped away, as if washed away by the rushing of the water. He took a step back, letting the shadows fold around him.
“What’s your name?” Madi asked. “I’m—”
He whirled around and scurried into the woods.
“Wait!” Madi shouted. “Where you going?”
She rushed to the other side of the bridge and down the sloping bank.
“Why are you running? Please wait.”
She slipped in the damp earth and skidded down the muddy bank, her feet slipping into the creek. The water felt cold as ice. She scrambled in the mud, clawing her way up the bank. Dark mud spattered the hem and painted an outline of her legs and behind on the dress. Pa would tan her hide for sure when she got back home, but it was too late to worry about that now.
She reached the top of the bank, and saw the boy duck beneath a tangle of brush. He didn’t follow the path, and branches slapped at him as he pushed through.
“Wait!” she cried. “You ruined my dress. Least you can do is talk to me.”
If he heard her, he didn’t react. Twigs and brush crunched beneath his feet. He dipped his head and vanished into a wall of tangled thorns.
“Careful!” Madi raised her voice. She no longer saw him, but could hear him struggling through the thickets up ahead. She didn’t know why he was running, and she didn’t reckon she’d ever see him again to ask. “That ways overrun with thorn bushes.”
Dozens of thick, thorny vines crisscrossed before her. Not impassable, but growing thicker every inch of the way. She’d never follow the boy’s path without at least a few cuts and scrapes.
Old Man ‘Riah once told her a tale of a young boy who had been chased through the briars by a pack of wild dogs. Nearly scared to death by the ravenous, nipping animals, the boy had plunged into the briars, ignoring the pain of hundreds of needle-sharp stabs. The dogs didn’t dare follow, but by the time he emerged on the other side, he was nearly ripped to shreds, blood oozing from hundreds–if not thousands–of tiny cuts over his hands, neck, and face. He collapsed to the ground, weeping, his tears burning in his open wounds. And then he heard something padding up through the brush ahead of him. Weak from losing so much blood, he looked up to see the dogs loping through the brush. They’d circled around the briar patch and tracked the scent of his blood. He was too weak to run, and as they fell upon him, he couldn’t even muster a scream.
Madi didn’t believe the old man’s story, of course. ‘Riah was always spinning one story or another, almost all with gruesome ends. But she couldn’t help but think of the frightened boy racing through the vines as they ripped and tore into his flesh.
I can make it if I’m careful, she thought. She cautiously crawled beneath the first of the overhanging briars.
She saw no sign of the boy, but she heard him, moving up ahead, slowly now to avoid the briars as best he could.
“Can you hear me?” she called.
“What’s wrong with you? You got beans in your ears?”
She pressed forward–carefully–avoiding the slicing thorns. The briars snagged her dress, ripping at the fabric. Tears burned in her eyes as a jagged thorn drew a dotted line of red across the back of her hand. She looked away. More than anything, she hated the sight of—
Everywhere. Spattered across the thick carpet of pine straw and dead leaves. Glistening upon a gray-barked tree trunk. Dripping from a dozen or more thorns.
The boy left a spattered trail of his own blood through the briars.
“You all right?” Madi cried.
She followed, her eyes tracing the bloody track. She moved even more slowly. She no longer heard the boy, but something rustled up ahead. She wondered if the thickets in this place were moving of their own accord and dark thoughts, like the old tree, whispering secrets in her dreams.
A half dozen thorns tore at her flesh, and tears ran freely down her cheeks. She looked back the way she had come, and saw the path of blood behind her. How much of it was the boy’s blood? And how much of it was her own? Her stomach turned.
A copper pot stink flooded her nostrils, and she covered her nose as she took another step. The forest floor was wet and warm and sticky beneath her feet.
So much blood.
Another, and a briar stabbed into her cheek. She flinched away, and her hair became tangled in the grasp of one of the vines. She winced free.
There, lying in a crumpled heap, was the boy’s threadbare clothes. The cloth was stained glistening red.
And she saw the boy again.
Except, it wasn’t him.
“Only the skin,” Madi whispered.
All that was left of the boy was strung up between several barbed vines like wet clothes from the wash. His arms dangled loosely, the fingers flapping. His legs and feet trailed the ground, stretched out and twisted like old socks. His eyes and mouth sagged and gaped, empty.
Madi felt ashamed as her eyes strayed below the boy’s waist, where the skin was ripped and shredded. Her face flushed, and she quickly looked away.
Her breath caught in her throat.
A trail of glistening, bloody footsteps continued through the forest, vanishing into the brush.
Madi jumped and stepped away from the tattered skin dangling before her like a sheet phantom.
The boy’s torn lips twitched and the empty mouth tried to form words.
His breath reeked like a slaughterhouse.