The Woods

Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category

By: Sarah Wallenfang

Every morning Mrs. Fields took a walk through the Woods. And every morning it seemed as if she disappeared into the wild, green mass. But, of course, those who watched her knew this couldn’t possibly be the case. No one disappears into thin air. No, no. Obviously, the wild, weepy ferns and the tangles of branches dripping with moss were behind it. They hid her from sight.

Or did they? Little Sam Tucker was determined to find out.

Ever since he could remember Sam had watched Mrs. Fields make her daily trek into the woods on the edge of town. And he never once saw her walk out. Yet the next morning she would appear at the Woods dark mouth, ducking low to avoid the branches that scratched and clawed at her face as she entered the green labyrinth. This puzzled Sam. But then again, as an eight-year-old, he was almost always puzzled or curious about something.

However, this mystery he was determined to solve. Curiosity burned in him every time he watched Mrs. Fields start on her morning journey. Sam had to figure out where she went. So he made a plan. It was devious, cunning, and had only one thing standing in its way—Sam’s mother.

Try as he might, Sam never could convince her to let him go to the Woods. They had lived next to the field that bordered them his whole life, yet he had never set one toe onto the mossy, leaf-strewn floor. Of course, before he realized Mrs. Fields trekked into them every morning Sam had never really questioned this rule. But the moment he saw her disappear into the branches he had the strangest urge to follow her. Now he voiced his displeasure at this limitation every chance he could get.

Sam remembered the first time he had asked his parents if he could go play in the Woods. He had gone to his mother first, and she had been quick to deny his request. “No, no, no,” she spluttered, her eyes darting anxiously back and forth from the Woods to Sam, “There—there are wild animals in there. It’s dangerous.” And that had been that. Although Sam had the funniest feeling that she hadn’t said everything she’d wanted to say.

His father’s response (For when one parent says “No” what is an eight-year-old to do but go to the other one?) had only made Sam more suspicious. After staring at Sam for a long moment his father finally said, “No, I don’t think you should go in there. People say things about those woods, funny things…” and then trailed off as if he wasn’t even sure what he was saying any more.

This only fueled Sam’s desire to figure out the mystery of the Woods, and so on one brisk Saturday morning he decided to put his plan into action.

Knowing that both his parents enjoyed sleeping in well past their normal waking times, Sam decided it would be all too easy to sneak out of his room, down the stairs, and out his back door at the first sign of Mrs. Fields making her way down the street. So as the first streaks of light slipped through his curtains Sam began his watch. The sun rose steadily over the horizon, making the early morning mist shimmer like gold. Finally, after what seemed like hours, she appeared.

Walking with an odd, uneven gate, Mrs. Fields moved slowly down the road. She had lived alone in the imposing Victorian style manor house at the corner of the road for as long as anyone could remember. Yet no one really knew her. Her neighbors had no clue where she worked; who her family and friends were or if she even had any remained a mystery; and how long she had lived at the corner of Dusk Valley Drive and Thorn Creek Road remained as unknown as what happened when she went into the Woods.

So the people of the small New England town of Ridgeville talked. A lot.

Stories about crazy Mrs. Fields spread like wildfire around the town. Some said she was a witch who used the Woods as a place to cast her spells, others that she escaped from a mental ward and had formed a new identity to escape capture. And these stories were the tame ones. Others had people convinced she was a serial killer who could murder with a single touch or that if you looked into her eyes too long you would surely turn to stone. Naturally, there were kind stories as well. Sweet Ms. Betty told anyone who came into her teashop that Mrs. Fields simply liked living on her own and wouldn’t hurt a fly if she had the chance. No one liked this theory though; it was too normal. They wanted scandal. And little Sam Tucker was determined to find it.

He peered intently out his window, making sure to keep hidden behind the heavy fabric of his curtains. When he thought Mrs. Fields had made it far enough down the road he slipped on his tennis shoes and coat and bolted from the room.

For one horrifying moment Sam thought his luck had run out as he heard the squeak of bed springs come from his parents room. Frozen at the top of the stairs, he held his breath and waited. Soon, though, he heard his father heave a heavy sigh and all went silent. He let out his breath in a big whoosh and hurried down the stairs, making sure to skip over the squeaky one at the bottom.

Finally, a rush of cool air greeted him as he flung himself out the door and into the back yard. Spotting Mrs. Fields about a hundred yards ahead of him, he took off into the field leading to the woods, letting the high reeds shield him from her view. When he caught up to her in the tall grass he slowed down and let her take the lead, making sure to keep her gray-streaked hair in sight.

While they made their journey to the edge of the Woods Sam studied Mrs. Fields. He had never really noticed, or cared to notice, her eccentric, haggard appearance. She had tied her wild gray hair back into a thick braid that appeared secured at the end with a string of leather, a brightly patterned vest covered a dress so long it swept over the ground, and multiple scarves and bracelets completed her ensemble. Studying her further Sam noticed her hands were knotted with veins and her back stooped over. Her face showed much of the same. Creased and spotted with age, the skin hung loosely over her sallow cheekbones. Yet her eyes shone bright and warm, the blue standing out against her pale skin.

Suddenly Mrs. Fields froze and Sam stumbled to a stop next to her, hoping that she didn’t hear the rustling of the tall grass as he clumsily got his footing. They had made it.

A silence, still and heavy, hung over them as Sam took in his surroundings. Before the tall grass had obscured the Woods from his view but now Sam stood on its very edge, his toes inches from the mossy floor. Peering through the dense foliage that stood in front of him, he looked into the trees. Though the sun had risen quite high in the sky the Woods remained shrouded in darkness, with just a weak light filtering through the canopy of leaves. Shadows hid most of the Woods secrets, and it seemed eerily still.

Mrs. Fields cleared her throat and Sam felt excitement course through him. He surveyed her from the corner of his eyes, waiting for her to move ahead. Finally, with slow, sure steps she went forward and disappeared.

Sam had gotten so caught up in studying the Woods that for a moment he stood rooted to the spot while Mrs. Fields slinked forward, and for an instant panic gripped him. Determined to catch up, he ran forward impulsively, and as soon as he hit the Woods the branches seemed to scratch and claw at him, wrapping around his arms and legs and cutting into his face. They pulled at him, trying to keep him out. He cried out in pain, struggling against the strong pull of the branches. Then with one final staggering step forward the branches let him go. Breathing heavily, he looked around. What had happened to him? It felt as if the branches had come to life, had tried to warn him. Sam shrugged away the sense of foreboding. It must have been his imagination.

Mrs. Fields had only managed to get a few yards ahead of him, and Sam waited in suspense for her to turn around and find him out. She must have heard him yelling in pain and fear, yet she continued to move forward slowly, oblivious to his presence. Before he could fall behind again Sam started to follow her, darting from tree to tree to hide him from sight.

While making sure to keep Mrs. Fields in his view, Sam studied the Woods. It was like nothing he had ever seen. Even in the darkness caused by the canopy overhead Sam could see that great willow trees stood tall with their branches dripping down like sinister ribbons; ferns covered almost every inch of ground that didn’t have a tree growing from it, making it look like a garish, green sea; and moss creeped up every tree trunk, like hands on someone’s throat.  A greenish glow throbbed and pulsed at the center. Sam stood mystified. But the most bizarre and fantastic thing about the Woods was the mist.

Rolling over the ground like fog, it rippled and swelled, expanding as far as the eye could see. Despite the darkness of the Woods it shimmered like the sun had hit it until it

appeared almost gold. It was breathtakingly beautiful, yet utterly terrifying. Something like that did not exist. How could it possibly glitter with light when the canopy of leaves overhead would not allow one ray of sunlight to pass through? It was unnatural.

Sam balked as he approached the mist. Something felt off. His stomach tightened with nerves and every instinct told him to turn back. Yet, as he watched Mrs. Fields approach the edge of the shimmering mass and step through, he felt the strangest urge to do the same. It felt as if some string pulled him forward. He felt his foot move.

Inside he screamed at himself, trying to turn, to run, but the urge to go towards the mist only grew stronger. His feet shuffled forward against his will, and he was powerless to stop them. His heart beat rapidly in his chest, and a scream built up in his lungs, crawling up his throat. He turned his head to look behind him one final time, trying to find a hole in the dark wall of trees that had closed around him, one last chance for escape. Then he was pulled into the mist.

It was like nothing Sam had ever experienced before; he felt a sense of wonder flow through him. Inside the mist the Woods shone brightly and birds chirped freely, sending calls to each other. Every inch of the green forest sparkled in the light from the mist. The very heart of the Woods seemed to glow like the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. At that moment everything was peace, and happiness, and light. Fear and danger were forgotten enemies.

Sam stared around the Woods mesmerized by its beauty. For so long he had yearned to journey to here, to discover why Mrs. Fields came here every day. Now he knew. Every worry and care he ever had slipped away. Magic.

He knew now that Mrs. Fields did disappear. Every morning she entered the Woods and every morning she walked through an invisible barrier separating dreams from reality (for surely this could not be real). Sam walked forward slowly, wondering in the back of his mind if he would ever get home and deciding it didn’t really matter. Nothing mattered now. He was home.

A movement up ahead caught Sam’s attention and he peered forward curiously, no longer straining to see through the trees. Mrs. Fields stood in a small clearing a few yards away. For a moment they stared at each other. Then she beckoned to him with one mangled hand.

Buoyed by his newfound sense of peace and security Sam stepped towards her willingly and soon stood before her in the clearing. He looked up into her eyes.

Something was different. A change had taken place in Mrs. Fields that Sam couldn’t quite decipher, but for the first time since he had entered the mist he felt a sense of unease. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck. They studied each other for a long while in silence, and finally Sam began to see the changes that had taken place.

Lines no longer crisscrossed Mrs. Fields face, and her hair fell around her shoulders like spun gold rather than silver. Her hands were no longer gnarled like claws. She stood straight and tall and her eyes sparkled feverishly. She looked younger.

Sam gasped in horror and stumbled away from her, but Mrs. Fields reached out to him and took hold of his left arm. He squirmed in pain and tried to pull away while panic coursed through his veins. Sam cried out and tried one last time to pull away, but it was to no avail. Mrs. Fields had his arm in a vice-like grip with a strength that seemed to grow the more he struggled.

Soon Sam felt himself growing weak. The will to fight slowly drained from him as he stared into Mrs. Fields’ eyes, silently begging for release. He was getting lost in their blue depths; he could not look away. He felt the last chains of struggle fall away from him and knew that the fight had been lost.

During the struggle Sam had not realized how far she had pulled him into the mist. The dark forest opening was no longer in sight and neither was his last hope for escape. Sam followed Mrs. Fields willingly now; he had no reason not to.

Finally, after what felt like miles they stopped. Mrs. Fields, who had been leading the way, turned to face Sam. He didn’t even blink when he saw her face now, the hair on the back of his neck stayed still. Yet the changes were even more evident. Clearly, years had been taken from her. The skin on her face was flawless porcelain, and she walked with a languid grace. Her hands moved with dexterity and strength.

But this did not bother Sam.

He stared back at her without feeling, without care. What happened after this moment meant nothing to him; he was nothing. She took one step closer to him and, unlike before, gently took his hand in hers. She stroked it absently for a few moments then looked in to his eyes. For the first time since they entered the Woods she spoke: “Thank you.” It was barely more than a whisper but carried a tone of feverish gratitude, and once it fell from her lips she turned away and never looked back. The heavy trees soon hid her from Sam. She disappeared.

All alone, it seemed as if Sam woke from a dream. The mist vanished and he was left standing in the middle of the Woods, dark shadows quickly creeping in around him. He began to run blindly and felt his lungs burn with the effort. Soon it became too much, and he had to slow, his breath coming in great, shallow gasps. Sam continued to stumble forward until he came to a small stream. He looked down.

Horrified, Sam saw immediately why Mrs. Fields went for a walk in the Woods everyday—why she led him to the Woods.

The reflection staring up at him no longer bore any resemblance to the freckle-faced boy with sandy blonde hair and a gap in his teeth he used to know. Instead, an old man stared back at him. His face lined and spotted with age, and his head topped with thinning, white hair. Sam’s hand came up to his face in horror and he saw they were veined and knotted like claws. He looked away.

The finality of what Sam now knew, of what he finally understood, washed over him.  For a fleeting second Mrs. Fields face framed with golden hair swam before him. Then everything went dark.

Some thought that Mrs. Fields disappeared into the Woods, but it was not Mrs. Fields who had been lost. It was little Sam Tucker who had lived a lifetime in a day and was now lost to the Woods forever.

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