by Charles Etheridge-Nunn
The Day Before It Began
Greg was not there when the strangers arrived. Like everyone who did see them, he had no idea where they came from, what their names were or even what they looked like.
They entered the pub and asked for a room, which pleased Paul the barman as visitors were rare in the village.
Greg was busy walking through the old woods, around the lake and back before dark. He had misjudged the time and returned an hour after dark, an hour after the strangers went to bed.
The strangers were the talking point of the pub, and Greg was as curious as the others. The village was where two obscure country roads crossed and no one passed through it unless they lived there. There were only two roads of houses, an old church, a pub and the closed post office. Most people stayed there, like Greg, because of the woods.
The Old Woods Are Our Real Home
The old woods were blessed.
Everyone knew this. It was not a matter of faith or scepticism. The paths would always lead you home when you wanted, always remain dry and stable in the harshest of weather. You would never be stung by an insect or a nettle. The trees always provided the right amount of shade and the way they moved almost made music.
This is what everyone in the village says, so it must be true.
Greg and the Village
Greg was born one of four children named Greg. Each named after the old milkman who spent his days on the milk float, trying to avoid going home to his wife. There was some contention about whether he had sired these four boys called Greg and what they would name any girls, but the old milkman’s death put an end to the discussion.
The four Gregs had all moved away from the village in the same year, our Greg, the second oldest, was one of two who had returned.
He spent his afternoons either working on his motorbike or in the woods.
The woods were large, larger than any he had ever seen and had a magical quality to them. He was always getting lost on purpose, then finding his way home.
He was surprised, the day after the strangers arrived, to hear they went out to the woods. They left early, after having a modest breakfast.
Greg understood the following about the strangers. There was a man and woman. Nobody knew how they had arrived and nobody could decide on their appearance.
“They were Asian, but tall, really tall,” Paul said.
“Short, and I think Irish. And he had a wooden leg,” Doris chimed in when she overheard Paul talking about them. “My husband, God bless his soul, had a similar leg after his accident.”
She was blind and he had a glass eye. They had bright red hair and were almost androgynous. They were both like ogres, giant, fat and bald. They were Siamese twins, with clothes like they were in the circus. She dressed as a nymph and he dressed like a biker.
They were generous tippers, and even bought the whole bar a round before retiring for the night.
The villagers all started doing things. Paul started learning Mandarin. Doris took up knitting again. Greg went back to the motorbike for the first time in weeks, this time really setting out to finish it.
On a break from his work, Greg walked over to the fields by the woods. Toy horses lived there, not to be sold or trained, they just kept breeding and people kept feeding them. He thought about entering the woods to finally catch a glimpse of the strangers. Caught between decisions, he sat on the wooden fence for an hour before going back to his motorbike.
My Greg, the youngest Greg, went out into the woods for a walk when he was eleven. He didn’t play much with other kids from school, but he and our dog loved to go for walks together. They went around in a big circle most days. But this one day he kept going, past the lake, the old farms and some fields he’d never seen before and heard a church bell. Our church bell, not another village’s, you know how it doesn’t chime right? Like that. The thing was, it was in front of him.
He swears he never turned back, never went around a corner, just in a straight line and ended up back at this village. No one believed him, and no one listened to his tall tales anyway. He kept doing that walk, and said it kept leading him back like that.
I went out there once, just out of curiosity, mind you, and he was right. I went in a big circle by walking a straight line. I tried it the other way, and it wouldn’t work.
The Strangers Never Came Back
When Greg was in the pub that evening, Paul was telling the other customers about how the strangers never returned.
“They said they would be back for lunch,” he said.
“What were they going to eat?” the other Greg asked.
Our Greg listened in distant fascination. Everyone had been so taken with them, he had to meet them.
It was too dark to go out into the woods this late, so he would have to wait.
People spent the night predicting what such exotic strangers would have eaten, and left eventually, Paul saying he would stay up late to keep an eye out.
Greg wished Doris’ three sons a good night, only one of whom was the other remaining Greg. Covering up his motorbike and packing up his tools, Greg heard the familiar wailing of Paul’s father, dementia having taken his mind several years ago.
No one drinks from the lake in the old woods. No one eats the flesh of the animals in the old woods. Paul’s father told me this, back when he was beginning to lose his mind.
He told me about how he had drunk from the lake on a beautiful, hot day years ago. He grew younger and happier because of the water, but now he had to pay the price. Paul’s father also told me of a hunter who killed and ate a deer. This was while Paul’s father was young, and they never saw the hunter again. Apparently the woods claimed him as their own.
Mister Roberts’ House
Robert Roberts hated to be called Bob.
When Greg moved back here, he had to start remembering all of the rules. Robert Roberts lived in a crumbling farmhouse in the centre of the village. His ancestors had not predicted the growth of houses in the area and when the village was large enough, too many people complained about the pigs.
“Hello?” Greg called through the door.
Greg and his old school friend Michael had been volunteered to look after their elderly neighbours. This had happened many years ago, but young people were so scarce that Greg picked up this position almost immediately upon his return.
Michael had cooked the breakfast and Greg made the tea, just as weak as Mister Roberts wanted it. They were confused when the gaggle of dogs did not come to greet them, circling around legs, tails wagging, almost purposefully knocking the food and drink to the floor.
“I can’t hear the dogs inside,” Michael said. “Try the door.”
It swung open easily. Mister Roberts never kept it locked anyway. Greg let Michael go first and they searched the house.
There were no signs of Mister Roberts. His best shoes were gone and the bed had been made. He had not left the house for ten years, since his hip went, and he refused to let his grandsons send him to a nursing home.
“Maybe they got their way,” Michael pondered.
“They’d have at least left a note.” Greg wandered around the kitchen, meagre supplies still dotted around.
Greg forgot about the strangers for the rest of the day, trying to find where Mister Roberts had gone.
There are old walls in the woods. Someone built a fort or a castle. No one quite remembers and no one can find enough to see what it would’ve looked like.
Story goes a man and his wife lived there for many years. They were happy, although she was unable to give him an heir. In her despair, she never left their home, never went outside again.
Eventually, walking in the woods, he came across a wild woman. She would not say where she came from and spoke words only the man knew. They ran away together and were not seen again.
The man’s wife burned their home down and died inside. The servants saw her wailing ghost inside and refused to rebuild anything.
Ghosts of both the wife and the fort lay there still, waiting for the wild woman to give her husband back.
The Village is Mostly Empty
Most of the houses along the two roads had people in them, but all the dozens of farms further out were emptying. It was a trend which had been going on for generations. The farmers’ children could not afford the upkeep or just wanted a different career.
That was what kept Greg away at first. He and the other Gregs all left the village around the same time. Our Greg’s parents were young and self-sufficient on their farm. It was only half an hour away from the centre of the village, so he could go there and work on his bike, wander the woods and be home in time for dinner.
On his way into the village, Greg noticed more farms were empty. More than yesterday, which was in turn more than the day before. As if people were leaving for a reason he had not been told about.
It had been a week since the strangers left as enigmatically as they had arrived and people were going back to their normal lives.
Greg had been in the woods only a couple of times since the strangers left, but would not go into the deep woods, where the shadows were long and animals watched him from afar.
They were a comforting place normally, Greg had spent most of his childhood there, having adventures with friends, sword fights around the ruined walls and trying to ride the toy horses.
Even in the woods near to the village, he lost his way from the path a few times and had to walk through thorny hedges to get back before dark.
Where the Old Woods Come From
They say the old woods were once just a single dryad, a tree spirit. She was lonely and grew a tree out of her dreams. When the tree was old enough, she gave it a spirit and a free will. They were lovers for a time, but she kept him from the world and he ran away.
She tried again and again, making more trees and spirits, but none of them were what she originally wanted, none of them were him. Alone and surrounded by trees who were not her lover, she wept, making the lake in the middle of the woods. Eventually she slept a sad, lonely sleep, leaving all of the new spirits to play in the wood.
The Motorbike is Nearly Complete
Greg’s first thought was, “I should have noticed when the people were disappearing.”
He was working on his motorbike, no longer hearing the cries of Paul’s father in the distance. No longer hearing the church bells. Almost everyone was gone, even his parents who had never set foot outside of the county.
He had stopped going into the woods when he saw a wolf, or maybe a man with a wolf mask, in there. Just for a second. Then he was gone.
Greg stopped at Paul’s pub for lunch again. Paul was not bothered or upset that his father had gone.
“It was his time,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“Any sign of those strangers?” Greg asked.
Paul shook his head. “Nah, must have just been passing through somewhere. Are you able to help me sort out the roof? Young Michael was supposed to, but he went yesterday.”
“Went where?” Greg asked.
Paul did not know. Greg had not noticed Michael was missing, or Doris’ boys, or the barmaid.
Greg could not go back to his parents’ empty farm. The dogs would have gone with them and it was too isolated to feel comfortable on his own. He agreed to help Paul with the roof in return for room and board.
Greg would no longer go into the woods, which had advanced towards the village, consuming the fields of tiny horses as it went.
The Village is Too Old
The village website said how old the village was and no one believed it. Only the church and Mister Roberts’ disused farm were leftover from its early days, and they were rebuilt a few times.
It went in cycles, some buildings knocked down, new ones in their place, more and more. Farms as tiny expansions to the village, knitting it in with the next village across, and the next one. A tight network with rivalries dating centuries back.
The farms were almost all disused in the village anyway and nobody bothered with local shops. Doris kept the post office going in the pub until midday each day. Greg took that over when she disappeared one morning.
The Village is Too New
The walls of the oldest buildings started to crumble away. Greg did his best to hold them up. Until he left, Paul was helpful in all the odd jobs needed to keep the village together; the church and the plants growing over the cemetery; the road signs which kept being taken down. Greg used paper and staples to announce the village now.
When Paul left, Greg moved to Paul’s large bedroom and poured himself the occasional beer without paying. He missed the tall tales Paul and the other patrons of the pub would tell about the village and the woods.
The roads needed to be looked after as well, there were weeds growing up through cracks in the tarmac and between bits of pavement, but Greg had no idea how to fix roads.
Greg Doesn’t Know All the Farms Are Gone
On the last day, Greg saw the woods had taken over the gardens of some of the houses nearest to what were once the fields. The fences were almost all gone, bits of torn wood and metal almost eaten by the woods.
The pavement and roads were overgrown and appeared no different to the grass. The posts he had been diligently stapling the village name to had gone, too.
He was finally alone, with only the newer houses and the pub left.
Greg looked at the almost-complete motorbike. He had forgotten about building it when he started helping Paul.
Packing a lunch and getting Paul’s best walking boots, Greg set off towards the woods.
The Villages Tales Were All True
But Greg did not know this either.
Everyone is With Us Now
Greg walked through the woods. The paths were almost completely gone, but he had a rough impression of which way to go to reach the centre of the woods. He passed the toy horses, grazing on the long grass, ignoring him.
Once he was past them, all was quiet. He went on for half an hour until he heard branches snapping. Whirling round, Greg caught sight of a man in ragged clothing, wearing a mask that looked like a deer. It pulled the mask up and underneath it was Michael.
After a second of confusion, Greg went to chase after the deer-Michael who fled. Michael moved faster than Greg, faster than any man he knew.
Stopping to get his bearings, Greg was knocked over by someone else in a wolf-mask. This wolf was wearing Paul’s clothes and did not stop to acknowledge Greg. He just carried on after his prey.
Greg, having lost his way entirely, saw a piece of ruined wall and followed it.
Closer to the centre of the fort, he could hear a sobbing in the empty woods.
Greg could almost make out an old woman, hanging in the air like a fine mist.
“Where is my husband?” she asked in Doris’ voice.
“Dead,” Greg replied. “He died ten years ago.”
With that, the tears turned into loud sobs and then screams. Although he did not believe the stories when he was younger, Greg ran away from the old fort walls, feeling the heat grow behind him.
A shocked group of five people in squirrel masks with giant fluffy tails fled in the same direction as him until they scurried up trees, faster than any man could.
Tired and confused, Greg eventually made it to the lake. He always felt at peace here. The water was serene and inviting.
I knew a woman who lived in the lake.
I was fed up of the festival, people dressed up as knights and maidens and monsters. Walking around the deep woods, I had taken my knight’s cloak and helmet off when I saw her.
Naked and almost completely submerged in the water, I thought she was another festival-goer. Her mask was that of a faerie, a pale face with long pointed ears.
She invited me in with her.
I was thirteen; maybe I should have known better.
She said I was her prince. She said I ruled the woods. She said she had taken men and tree-spirits alike for consorts. The village was hers, the woods were hers.
I shared her warmth under the water, time lost all meaning and we were both one with the woods.
I visited her again and again for years, wrapped up in her, in the lake and the woods, but forgot everything when I left the village. Five years passed. I returned but even then I had no memory. Not until I saw what the strangers had done to the lake.
They stood where the lake was once a picture of serenity. Now strange, alien, larger and more wild than before. Untamed, like the woods and what was left of the village.
Thick spider-webs covered the trees in a circle around the lake. The woman inside was gone, or hiding. Instead, a man and woman stood where the path sloped in to the water. It was hard for Greg to focus directly on them, they kept changing form and he had to look at them through his peripheral vision.
“Why did you take everyone away?” Greg asked.
“The time of your village is over,” the man said.
“Your people are safe with us now,” the woman added.
Greg caught a glimpse of Paul again, the wolf’s mask didn’t conceal the truth. Paul didn’t seem to recognise him any more.
“What will become of them?” Greg asked.
“They are the woods now,” the man said.
“The village is the woods now,” the woman said.
“What about me?” Greg asked. “This is my forest. This is my lake. Why did you take all the others?”
“It was not your time.” The Man.
“It will be time soon.” The Woman.
“How will I know?” Greg asked.
Greg looked at the lake and at the strangers again. They were silent in their short, tall, light, dark, long-haired, bald, identical ways.
The woman floating under the lake reached out to him, and Greg left the ruins of the village behind.
The Day Before It Began
The young man and the wild woman stopped the motorbike near the village before dark. They got off and walked towards the pub. They would have a drink, hear the local stories, get a room, and the next morning they would walk into the old woods.