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The Mother of the Wood
This short horror story was largely inspired by a night of rural dog-sitting during which the slightest noise outside would set the dogs off barking. With one dog this would have been an annoyance, but it was impossible to keep seventeen dogs quiet, and I didn't get any sleep. Instead of sleeping, I began thinking about what might be keeping the dogs awake.
"The Mother of the Wood" originally appeared in fall of 2012 in the second issue of brilliant-but-defunct Insomnia Press magazine.
I whistled and clapped my hands. Nothing.
I tried shouting, "come on, Layla! Come Layla! Layla!"
That didn't help, either.
Darren and Amber were dog breeders, and I'd agreed, once again, to look after their dogs while they went on vacation. This happened at least once every summer, and I was usually eager for the opportunity to escape from the city. I'd take some vacation hours of my own, pack up a few days worth of necessities, and head thirty miles southeast to their farm where I could play my guitar, work on my writing, catch up on reading, and just generally relax. The dogs were happy to be ignored as long as they were getting fed, and there was a human presence in the house.
But today was not going as planned.
I'd decided to walk the trail behind the house, which separated the neighbor's corn and soybean fields, and I took one of the dogs with me—a toy fox terrier named Layla who especially liked me. We usually went on at least one walk together, partly for that reason, and partly because she was a smart, dependable dog who didn't need to be kept on a leash.
But this afternoon things had gone wrong. We had taken the well-beaten fork in the trail that led out of the fields and into a grove of trees. Some small animal that I hadn't seen had set Layla off, and she had gone tearing through the underbrush in search of whatever it was. I lost her almost immediately, so I made my way generally in the direction she had gone, and when I gave up on finding her that way, I tried to reconnect with the path. I didn't find it though, and now I had come to the edge of a small pond which I had never seen before. I stood and looked into the brown water, and tried to decide what to do. If I could find the path, I could return to the house, and Layla might well already have found her way back. On the other hand, if she'd managed to get into the cornfield, she might be totally disoriented when she came out.
I was weighing my options and walking around the pond when I heard a faint growl. It was Layla, and she was heading this way. I waited, and as the growl got louder, I could see an agitation in the grass ahead of me. Then she ran back into the trees, so I followed and caught sight of her just as she stopped.
I like dogs, but I don't own one. If I had, I would have known immediately that her snarling attack stance wasn't directed at her quarry. Her legs canted back slightly, and her head pointed straight ahead, and I was squinting so intently to see where the animal had gone that I actually cried out and lost my balance when I saw the man leaning against the tree up ahead.
Or was it a man? The dark, squat form disappeared as I stood, like a trick of the shadows. Layla was still snarling, though, so I shouted a hello. No answer came. I picked up the dog who noticed me at last and began quickly to make my way, with many self-conscious glances over my shoulder, back to the pond.
I sat down, Layla beside me, and kept my hand on her back. I was disconcerted by what I thought I'd seen. Hadn't there been someone back there? If not, what had Layla been chasing? It was a bright, sunny day, but I hadn't been able to distinguish the form's features in the shadows beneath the thick awning of leaves. The half-glimpsed figure must have been a tangle of trees, nothing more.
So I rested, taking a nervous look around every few moments, and after a little while I got up had headed back in the direction of the farm. I had a vague idea of where I was, and I carried Layla in my arms because I didn't want her to run off again. She seemed content to be carried, but every few moments her head would whip around in one direction or another, as if she were tracking something that was darting around in the bushes. She started a low growl, and I began to tense. But we were alone. The normal sounds of a forest began to grate on my nerves, and I almost dropped Layla when the goat wandered into view.
It was mostly black with white on its face and chest, and it stopped moving when it caught sight of us. We stopped, too, and Layla's long, low growl turned into savage barking. I pressed her tight to my chest and tried to clamp her mouth shut, but she wouldn't be quiet. The goat didn't seem to mind. It simply stood and looked with those big, yellow, hourglass eyes, and after a few moments it came closer. Layla was squealing now, writhing, and trying to get down. I kept my hands clamped over her, as the goat looked us up and down, then walked on past me. I turned and watched it disappear into the leaves, and Layla resumed her barking. Finally, we walked on.
We weren't passing any familiar landmarks, and I was beginning to worry. I considered trying to find the pond again, but I'm no novice at navigating; I knew that I was walking north, in the direction of the farm. We should, at the very least, have met up with the road by now. I put Layla down, and we kept walking until the trees broke, but instead of coming out by the road or one of the familiar farms of the neighborhood, we stepped into a clearing in front of a small, wooden building.
I could see that it had been painted white at one time, but weather had stripped the outside walls to a dead, gray color. There was no driveway, no cars, and no power lines ran to the place. It was far too large to be a hunting blind, and far too intact to be a forgotten outbuilding. The windows were clean. I decided it looked more like a house than anything else. Layla didn't growl, but she wouldn't step toward the place either, so I picked her up again, walked through the tall grass to the door, and knocked. A small wood stove sat a few feet away with fire raging, and the heat bothered us both.
It didn't take long for the door to open, and the woman who stood there was elderly, stooped, and wearing a maroon dress and a brown shawl. She was at least a head shorter than I was and quite thin, and she peered up at me through a pair of glasses with wide, black, octagonal lenses. They must have been completely opaque, and I decided she wasn't staring at me after all. She was blind. Layla settled into my arms, shaking slightly.
"Yes?" the woman said, warily.
"Hi," I said. "I'm keeping an eye on my friends' house while they're on vacation this week. I'm not from around here, and I got lost in the woods. Can you point me in the direction of the highway?"
She took a long time answering, and worked her jaws up and down a couple of times before she spoke.
"There's no road runs through here."
"I'm looking for highway M," I said, "or North Cheshire Road."
"What do you want to watch a house for?" she asked.
"They're dog breeders, so they need someone to look after all the dogs."
"Dogs can look after themselves," she said. Her tone of voice wasn't friendly. "That bitch you're holding looks a mite fat."
Okay, so she wasn't blind. The woman put her hand out to Layla, who snarled and snapped at her. The woman laughed and disappeared into the house for the briefest of moments, returning with a small scrap of raw meat, which she dangled in front of Layla's nose. Layla sniffed and gobbled the meat, and the woman held out another piece, which she took as well.
"Why don't you two come in for a minute," the woman said, gesturing for us to enter the house.
So I went inside, and she shut the door behind us.
The house had only one room, and it was cramped but sparsely furnished. There was a bed and a dresser, a basin, and a rustic table with one chair. Various cooking implements hung from the walls. A faded, but formerly colorful rug lay in the center of the floor, and the corners were filthy with dust. A heap of some unidentifiable red meat lay on a cutting board on the table.
"You can put the bitch down," she said. "Would you like some tea?"
I'm exclusively a coffee man, but I was uncomfortable and worried about offending, so I said that I would, and I took the chair that was offered to me.
She picked a cup off a hook on wall and placed it in front of me. Then she hobbled over to the windowsill, picked up a china teapot and a strainer, returned, and poured. The strainer caught a few small bits that looked to me like tiny fragments of twigs. She took it to the door and tossed its contents into the yard, then returned the teapot and strainer to the windowsill. I took a sip of my tea, which tasted very much like dirt.
She smiled at me, so I nodded and complimented the tea. Layla had run around the room sniffing at everything, and now she was trying to get up on the table to eat the meat. The woman laughed, picked up another small morsel, and fed it to the dog.
"What kind of meat is that?" I asked.
"Mutton," she said.
"Goat?" I asked her, thinking of the earlier encounter.
"No," the woman snorted. "Mutton. Sheep."
I slid a little further away from the cutting board, and took another small sip of the tea. It didn't taste dangerous, but it didn't taste good, either. The woman knelt down on the floor and called to Layla, who timidly approached to take another scrap of meat. She cooed softly to the dog, and petted her, and fed her more, and soon she was able to scoop Layla up in her arms. Layla climbed all over her and licked her face.
"So anyway," I said, "which way is the nearest road? I know you said no road runs through here, but if I wanted to find the road, which way would I go?"
The woman continued to play with Layla for awhile before finally saying, "don't know. You in a hurry?"
"Well, no, but I need to get back to the farm to feed the dogs."
"Dogs can take care of themselves," she said. Then, to Layla, "you're a good little bitch. Yes you are. Yes. Do you want some more lamby-pie?"
She picked up another small shred of meat, and held it teasingly above Layla's head. Layla leaped up, knocking off the dark glasses. The woman's gaze met mine, and her eyes were the yellow, narrow-pupiled eyes of a goat. Suddenly I didn't want any more tea.
"That's all right," she laughed, and bent down to pick up the glasses. Layla jumped down to the floor, and stood waiting in front of the woman, but as soon as the woman turned those eyes to her, she began to bark.
I picked Layla up. The woman replaced her glasses.
"I'm sorry, we really ought to get back to the farm," I said. The old woman protested, but I made no attempt to process what she said. I thanked her several times for the tea, shut the door behind me, and started walking swiftly north.
I found a path at the edge of the yard which pointed in the right direction, so I took it. Soon things began to look familiar, and I realized that I was on the familiar trail that I'd walked so many times before. I put Layla down, and she trotted along beside me as I walked. It didn't make sense; I knew all the forks of the old path, and it had never taken me to the pond or to the old woman's house before. Yet the unfamiliar part of the forest soon opened into a place that I had explored long ago.
By the time I got back to the farm, the light was starting to fade. The dogs were in the fenced yard out back where I had left them, and it took me several minutes to round them all up and kennel each one. Then I prepared their evening meal, which they gobbled ravenously. I let them all back outside, turned on the porch light, and sat in the swinging chair with my guitar, noodling with a melody that I'd been working on.
I'd been at it for about half an hour when all the dogs started barking at once. This was not unusual; any cyclist or jogger or a piece of slow-moving farm equipment would set them off, so I ignored them for a couple of minutes. They didn't stop, though, so I went around to the side of the house to see what was going on.
The dogs were clustered, jumping and barking at the far side of the fence where stood the black goat that Layla and I had seen earlier. I don't think it saw me. I ran back to the porch and into the house, flung open the back door and called the dogs inside, but they paid me no attention until I went outside. The goat was bleating, and jumping against the fence with its front hooves. I went back in, closed the door, and looked out the kitchen window. The goat was gone, so I checked the other windows, and saw it ambling its way around the house. The front yard was also fenced, and I watched the goat unlatch the gate with its nose, and come down the front walk. I knew that the knot in my stomach was irrational, but something made me lock the front door. The goat stepped gingerly up onto the front porch, scratched at the door with its hooves and horns, and bleated. This set the dogs off again, and I went to lock the other two doors on the first floor of the house. When I came back to the living room, the goat was standing on its hind legs, bleating at the picture window. It knocked its horns lightly against the glass several times, so I shut the curtains. The dogs were still barking, and several times I managed to shut them up, only to have them bark again when the noise sounded from outside.
Eventually things quieted down, and I peeked out a window. The goat was still there, just standing, staring at the door. By now it was actually quite dark, and I was worried. The dogs were used to staying outside most of the time in summer, and they'd need to go out at least once more before lights out.
I let them run free while I made a late dinner. Every once in awhile I looked out the window to verify that the goat was still there. It was, and it wasn't moving. The goat's presence made me extremely uncomfortable, but I felt that I was probably safe as long as I stayed in the house. I turned on the television and tried to take my mind off things, which didn't work but gave me a way to pass the time.
By ten o'clock I decided that the dogs couldn't wait any longer. The goat was still out there, yellow under the porch light. I picked up a hefty flashlight, armed myself with a butcher knife, and went out into the backyard with the dogs.
It was a warm night. I turned on the flashlight and played it over the dogs, then over the corners of the house to see if the goat had followed the noise. Nothing. I waited a few minutes, and just as I was about the round the dogs up to head back in, a commotion near the house attracted my attention. I flashed my light in that direction, and saw the old woman, bent down low. She was feeding the dogs through the fence. They were barking and jostling to get to her, and the noise attracted the dogs from the other parts of the yard.
"No!" I shouted, as I ran to open the back door. "No! In the house! Get in the house!"
The dogs were reluctant, and it took a fair amount of shouting to get them all inside. The woman hobbled up to the corner of the house, near the door where the fence started.
"Go away from here," I said, holding up the knife.
"Please, I was just feeding the dogs," she said.
"Leave us alone."
"I've brought some meat for the dogs," she said, gesturing to a burlap sack she held. It was caked with blood.
"What is that?"
"Mutton," she said, "same as before. It won't hurt them."
"I'm going inside," I said, "and if you don't leave, I'm going to call the police. We don't want you here, and you're trespassing."
"I just want to see the dogs," said the woman. "Please let me in. I could cook you a fine meal from this lamb."
"Leave," I said, and went inside and set the knife down on the counter.
"Sir," called the woman from outside, and the dogs exploded into noise. "Please let me in. I just want to say hello to the dogs."
I decided to call the police. I went up to one of the second floor bedrooms to escape the noise, and dialed 9-1-1.
"Hello," said the voice on the other end of the line.
"Hi," I said. "I'm house-sitting for some friends. The address—"
"I know who you are," said the voice. "Did you call the wrong number?"
"This isn't 9-1-1?" I asked.
"No, it's Darren! Why are you calling 9-1-1?"
"I'm sorry," I said. "I was going to call the police and then you. I must have hit your name somehow."
"No biggie," said Darren. "What's going on?"
"There's an old woman outside," I said. "Layla and I met her in the woods when we were taking a walk, and now she won't leave us alone."
"Yeah, I know who that is. Listen, she's harmless. You should invite her in."
"Are you sure?"
"She just likes to play with the dogs. Anyway, I'm busy, I'm gonna let you go."
I started to say something, but Darren had already hung up. I looked at my phone, just as the words "Last call: 911. Call duration: 0:49" flashed off the screen.
And now I was starting to become really frightened. I tried the house phone, and was unsurprised to find that it was dead. I looked out one of the windows, and saw that the woman was in the front yard now. She was moving, but I couldn't tell what she was doing, and things—snakes, maybe—were moving around her. Her head shot up to look at my window. She had removed her glasses, and her eyes glowed with a faint, orange luminescence. I jumped back from the window and went downstairs to check on the howling, snarling dogs.
They were all agitated, and the ones who had been fed at the fence earlier were pawing frantically at the bottom edge of the door where a thin, dark root forced its way in and began to snake around the kitchen floor. The dogs went crazy as more roots burst their way through. These were the forms I'd seen writhing around the yard moments earlier. One of the roots twisted around my ankle, and up my leg, but I hacked it at the floor with the butcher knife. The severed tip stopped moving, but the roots were too numerous. They twisted around my arms and neck, wrapped around my torso and my ankles, and as I chopped anxiously, I realized that the detached sections were turning very slowly into a putrid, viscous mush which smelled vaguely of earth and rotting meat. And now some of the dogs were upon me, tearing and biting. I had been on my hands and knees, and I dropped the knife as I stood up. The roots were coming back, and the dogs did not stop their attack, so I kicked my way through them, and threw off the ones that climbed on my back. Most of the dogs were small—toy poodles and toy fox terriers, but the two English shepherds made it slow, painful going, and I was still trying not to hurt any of them.
The door to the stairway was always kept propped open. I kicked the doorstop out of the way, and closed the door on one of the shepherds who yelped and let go long enough for me to wrench the door shut, falling down as I did so. Layla had gotten up the stairs ahead of me, and now she was bearing down on my head, biting and digging with her claws. I reached behind me and clenched my fist on the scruff of her neck, scrambled up the stairs and locked her in a bedroom. Downstairs, the dogs were scratching at the door. The roots shot through and began feeling their way up the stairs, as more crawled out of the room where I'd thrown Layla.
I shut myself in the master bedroom, and sat on the bed until the searching roots forced their way in. I heard a tap at the window and looked up. An owl was beating its wings against the screen, and it, too, had the eyes of a goat. The roots found me, and began to twist around my arms and legs. I grabbed for the sewing kit beside the bed, and cut as many of the roots as I could with the scissors, but there were too many of them.
"Stop," said the woman's voice inside my head, "come to me, join my children."
I opened the window and lunged with the scissors at the owl, but I was too tightly wrapped to catch it. It flew in, perched on a chair, and began to change. Feathers fell to the floor. Bones and beak cracked. The thing contorted and shriveled and burned, and then the old woman stood before me. She began to speak, but I charged for the window, and flung myself out. The roots dragged against the window frame, and suspended me above the front porch. I squirmed and bit and tore until I dropped to the roof of the porch, and shimmied down to the ground.
The yard was alive. The grass was swaying like millions of tiny tentacles, the trees were moving as if in a strong wind. I sprinted across the yard to my car as roots sprouted from all directions and tried to drag me down, but I managed to get in and get it started. I stepped on the gas and felt the roots snapping as the car lurched forward. I turned in a wide arc until I was pointed at the road. Ahead of me, a healthy black walnut tree lifted itself and attempted stiffly to walk, but came crashing to the ground, bringing power lines with it. I watched as a piece of broken, black cable hissed and popped and convulsed in the driveway under its own electrical fury like an angry snake. Dangerous, but I could avoid the sparking end if I drove across the yard. A drainage ditch yawned wide and deep between the yard and the road, but I could clear it if I crossed at the northwest corner of the property. I stomped on the gas, aimed my car, drove across the garden, over the downed power lines, and into the road, where cornstalks and grapevines, and weeds were beginning to congregate. Again, I stomped the gas pedal, and plowed through them. I drove a couple of miles down Cheshire Road, and turned right at the next intersection, heading toward town. The hostile plants ended shortly beyond the edge of Darren and Amber's property.
Steffan's Lake was quiet at this time of night. Even the gas stations had closed. I parked and sat for a long time, trying to decide what to do. I considered making a pay-at-the-pump gas purchase and torching as much of the farm as I could, but I didn't have a suitable container, and anyway, I realized that my wallet was at the farm in my rucksack. Ultimately, I decided to drive back. I wouldn't stop, I'd just drive by and decide how to proceed.
The road was clear as I approached the farm, save for a couple of uprooted cornstalks and some smashed tomatoes and summer squash. I slowed down to survey the damage. Things were quiet, and there hadn't been any more damage in the yard. I drove on and spent the rest of the night cruising down country roads, thinking about what had happened.
By five o'clock, the sun was rising, and I decided to make my way back. The farm was as I had left it, but I recognized Darren and Amber's car crashed against the tree that had stumbled at me a few hours ago. I turned cautiously into the driveway and stopped. I climbed into back, released the latch that locked the seat in place, and pulled a box cutter and a tire iron out of the trunk. They weren't much, but it seemed wise to arm myself.
I walked up the front steps and onto the porch, which looked the same as always. The front door was still locked, and my fumbling with the knob set the dogs off. No roots emerged from around the frame.
"Hey!" called Darren's voice. "Good to see ya!"
I turned around. Darren and Amber were walking toward me, from the direction of the trail.
"What are you two doing home?" I asked.
"You seemed pretty frantic last night," said Darren.
"And we missed the dogs," said Amber.
They both had fragments of root twined around their limbs and necks.
"I have to go," I said.
"No," said Darren, stepping onto the porch. "She needs you to stay here"
Their eyes had changed.
"Don't come near me," I said, brandishing the tire iron.
"No," said Darren, "you're staying."
I tried to push past them but little Layla came bounding out of nowhere, and sunk her teeth deep into my leg. Darren and Amber fell on me, and I dropped the box cutter as Darren bit into my arm. They forced me down and my head struck the floor as he tore out a mouthful of flesh.
"She is our Mother," said Amber. "She is Mother to everything here."
"Don't fight Her," said Darren.
"What is she?" I asked.
"She is here," said Amber.
I struggled as I heard a hissing sound somewhere outside of my field of vision, and we were wrapped in a pale, yellow-veined fog. I closed my eyes and held my breath for as long as I could. A goat bleated, and I gasped in a lungful of air.
I opened my eyes and the old woman was leaning over me. I tried to stand, but Amber opened her mouth, and a tangle of roots shot out. Darren did the same, and I was ensnared.
"Why do you fight it?" asked the woman, her voice came from inside my head as her eyes bored into mine. "In the end, all things return to their origin. I will give you something better than a pedestrian death, better than a return to salt and soil."
"If you will not join me willingly, I will take you, and you will understand."
"All right," I said, tightening my grip on the tire iron. "I will join you."
"You can't trick me. If you attack your friends, there may be a lot of blood and a lot of pain, but you are mine now. You will not leave."
"I got away from you last night."
"I let you go last night," she said. "I brought your friends back to convince you. This will be easier if you give yourself willingly."
I lurched upward with the tire iron, but the roots held tight.
"Very well," said the voice, and the roots enveloped me. Twisting, burning tendrils pried me open, winding their icy way through me to extremities I couldn't name.
And in a few hours, I was on my way back home again. I apologized to Darren and Amber, but they said it was fine, because now we all understood. They helped me to round up my belongings. I said my goodbyes, and started down the highway back to the city. Layla dozed on my lap. Darren and Amber had suggested that I take her with me, since she liked me so much and I didn't have any pets. But she wasn't mine.
She belongs—we belong—to the Mother of the Wood.