When my father would drink—after he’d had his first two but before he got too far—he’d go really quiet. He’d stare out the window for a long time, not-yet drinking the third bottle one of us had run and fetched for him, and then he’d look to me and my sister.
‘Have I ever told you about my brother?’ he’d ask, and me and my sister wouldn’t say anything because he already had, but that wouldn’t stop him. ‘That boy, too curious and too stupid for his own good.’
It always made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t know what to say so I never said anything. I’d never talked about it with my sister, either, so I had no idea if she felt the same, but the way she stared at him, wide-eyed and excited for the story, told me enough.
Fiddling with the beer in his hands he’d look between the two of us with serious eyebrows. ‘We thought it was so fantastic, the way the trees moved overnight. We’d been playing in those trees all our lives and we loved exploring the new paths.’ He’d stop and shake his head, bringing the bottle up halfway before pulling it back down again. ‘You ever see something like that, you promise you’ll tell me. I’ll believe you. Okay? Promise.’
He’d wait for us to nod before nodding back, shoulders relaxing.
‘Anyway,’ he’d say, ‘we never thought the thing moving the trees could be dangerous.’
The way he’d say that, low and intense, always sent a shiver down my back. My sister always scooted closer.
‘Ma and Pa told us not to play after sunset, but my brother could never get enough of those woods and never cared too much for rules either. I should have made him come back with me, but I wasn’t about to go without dessert because of him.’
He’d pause here and finally take a long drink. My sister would wait impatiently for him to continue, and I always hoped he’d stop before he got to the really scary part. He only sometimes did.
‘Saw it nab him from the tree line. Poor kid never stood a chance. I did what I should have—told my parents—but they were out there trying to find footprints.’ He snorted. ‘As if those old gods leave footprints.’
That’s what he called them. Old gods. The first time he told the story, he’d spoken for so long about what they were that my brain had gone fuzzy. Honestly, I still didn’t get it, but I figured they were something like faeries or nature spirits. As Pa explained it, they were part of the forest, protected it. Slept in it.‘They sleep for a long time, those things, longer than we can imagine. But when they wake up, they need energy, and a god gets energy through subjects. People to go around doing their dirty work.’ His eyes would drift back to the woods at this point, and sometimes I thought he looked kind of sad. ‘That’s what happened to my brother. Taken and turned into part of the forest, part of those old gods.’
Ma had a different story.
As she told it, Pa’s brother had been taken by some human monster because he was a kid alone in the woods with no one else around. An easy target.
‘Your Pa was a kid who saw something scary happen to his brother, so his mind made up a story that was easier for him to understand. He just wants to make sure that something doesn’t happen to you.’ She kissed both our heads. ‘So you two look after each other, and don’t go playing in the woods.’
‘Okay,’ we promised.
The sky was getting darker, the horizon turning bright colours, and I wanted to go home.
Years of hearing Pa tell scary stories about these woods made them creepy in the daylight, sure, but it was the kind of creepy that was just a little bit fun if we stayed at the edge and never actually went in. But at night, they were just terrifying, the shadows moving to hide every monster that would hurt us just like they’d hurt Pa’s brother.
Ma and Pa hadn’t seen us playing here yet, and we were only at the edge anyway. Did it really count as playing in the woods if we could still see the house?
That was my sister’s argument, anyway, but I knew Ma and Pa wouldn’t think so, and they’d be looking for us any second now that it was getting dark.
‘Come on,’ she whined, slumping as if the very thought of going back home was killing her. ‘I’ve never seen that tree before. I just want to look at it. You know you want to.’
I eyed the tree, its trunk three people thick and many more tall. I knew logically that it had to have been there yesterday, and didn’t every tree look the same? She just wanted to play in the woods and didn’t want to go alone.
Pa’s stories whispered in the back of my mind, making my skin bump and shiver and my heart beat faster.
‘We’re going to get in trouble.’ I edged closer to the house, peeking back to make sure we weren’t already caught. The house was far enough away that it’d be hard to see us, but not completely impossible.
My sister groaned. ‘They won’t even know! Stop being such a goody-goody.’ All of a sudden she grinned, shifted around, and bolted. ‘It’ll just take a minute! You wait there if you’re so scared.’
I wanted to. Badly wanted to. It’s not that I really believed some fantastical monster was going to come out of the trees and hurt us, but Ma was right. Humans could be monsters too.
Looking between the house and the woods, I thought perhaps I should go and get Ma or Pa. My sister would be angry with me and I didn’t want to be a teller, but weren’t you supposed to tell if someone was doing something dangerous?
I looked between the house and my sister, just long enough that she disappeared behind another tree before popping back into view again on the other side. My heartbeat jumped and I turned and ran after her.
‘Wait for me!’ I called, keeping my eyes on her instead of my feet and just hoping I wouldn’t trip.
My sister laughed and disappeared behind the trunk of another tree. One second. Two. My feet pounded and she didn’t reappear.
I stopped so fast that my feet left indents in the dirt and I almost fell. ‘Hey,’ I called, hearing my voice tremble, ‘this isn’t funny.’
No sound. No wind, no birds, and no sister. With every second that passed I expected her to jump out from behind that tree laughing like an idiot and thinking herself so clever and me so stupid. But she didn’t, and all I could hear was my heartbeat. Thump-thump-thump.
This couldn’t be happening. My parents would kill me if I let this happen. We never should have gone into the woods. Why was she like this? All she had to do was follow the rules – she didn’t, and now she was gone!
The wind picked up, breaking the eerie stillness, carrying scattered leaves right past where I was rooted, frozen. My legs felt heavy and weak, my hands shaking. I wanted to turn and run back home even more than I had before, but I couldn’t stop scanning the trees, knowing my sister was going to pop out any second, knowing she wasn’t.
The leaves continued to swirl gently, carried by the wind. In the back of my mind, I thought it unusual the way it seemed to linger instead of moving on, but the rest of me was stuck staring at the places between the trees.
Over the sound of the wind, a voice faded in and out.. For a moment, I thought it was my sister laughing, and spun around ready to scream at her like I had never dared before, but there was no one behind me. No one around me. When the giggle came again I turned slower, my shaking hands infecting the rest of me. It didn’t seem so silly now, that fear I’d had of my father’s stories. Right now, I believed in his monsters.
The leaves were still dancing in the wind, but the movements seemed more controlled than before. They moved around each other, circling faster and faster, and it was all so impossible and I still couldn’t make my legs work, and I still couldn’t run, and I still couldn’t see my sister.
The leaves slowed, held suspended in the air, and for a single impossible moment, I thought it was a face. It smiled, and a hand waved.
And then they moved, faster and faster until I had to close my watering eyes. The wind died as fast as it’d come, the rushing sound of it drifting away. I opened my eyes, blinking tears and dust from them.
And there was my sister, standing in the remains of the windstorm, leaves scattered all around her. She was staring at me, face blanched, eyes wide and dark.
‘I think I got lost,’ she whispered.
Shaking the numbness from my legs, I ran up to her, grabbed her wrist and yanked her with me as I started running for the tree line. She stumbled and tripped at first, slowing us down, but I didn’t stop. I dragged her, our footsteps pounding in unison.
We only stopped running when we reached the house. Inside, I could hear the TV from the living room and Ma humming from the open kitchen window.
No one had noticed. My heart was fast, my shaky huffs slowing. My sister’s arm was limp in my grip and she didn’t pull away.
Looking at her, I ducked around and shook her arm until she finally looked at me. Really looked at me.
‘I don’t want to play there anymore,’ I said.
My sister nodded a single, slow nod. I kept looking at her for a few more moments, just to make sure she meant it.
I let go of her wrist. It fell back to her side.
‘We should go inside.’
My sister didn’t move. I wanted to snap her out of it, but I didn’t know how. If she went in acting like this our parents for certain would know something had happened, and then we’d have to tell, and then Pa would go crazy and Ma would call the police and we’d never be able to go outside again.
‘You’re not going to tell are you?’ Her voice was quiet, shaky. ‘You can’t tell.’
‘I’m not going to tell.’
She nodded, inhaled so deeply her shoulders raised towards her ears, and then reached for the door.
She opened it and we both went inside.
Author: Connie Griffin is a reader, writer, and all-around creative. While she primarily writes both long and short-form speculative fiction, she enjoys exploring creative writing of all mediums and formats. Family dynamics, especially those of the dysfunctional kind, are consistent themes throughout her works and feature strongly in her short stories.
Artist: Emma Bruce is a multi-disciplinary visual artist from Yugambeh country working out of Meanjin. Her work discusses the relationship modern society has with the environment through an archival style in hopes to preserve the experience of being in the natural world. Her work hopes to invite her audience to partake in activities that nurture native flora and fauna as well as create a sense of pride to be part of it.
Editors: Kelly Rouzbehi and Breeh Botsford