The Witches of the Woods

Published as part of an anthology Terror Tales for a Winters Eve through Phantasm Press.

A twig snaps underfoot. Something catches at the back of Gerry Bentley’s heal.

A tendril? Stop that!

Gerry’s breathing has become laboured. His Adams apple shoots up and down his throat. He croaks. He forces himself to draw in a deep breath. His six foot, two-inch frame feels small in the encircling gloom. His shoulders ache and his neck is stiff. He scans the woods but can make out little. A blotch of trees. A smudge of bracken. The smear of a jaundiced path, mud splattered from the rain earlier in the evening; obscured and blemished by the swirling mist. The moon above concealed by the dark brooding clouds. The shifting purple and blackness engulfing him.

He quickly shakes his head, while running his right hand through his hair. He squeezes his balls with his left hand, letting out a frustrated sniff.

Shit! Why’d I come into the woods?

His eyes catch a movement in the distance. A shape darts between the trunks of the trees. A chill runs up his spine. Gerry has never been taken by flights of fancy. Ghouls and goblins. Spooks in the night. Ghosts of Christmas past. Gerry poo poo’d the very notion.

A deer? A fox? The shallow, rapid, yet heavy breathing told the lie to Gerry’s rationalising. More likely a robber or a serial killer, than something from the underworld.

Not three hours ago Gerry had been at the theatre watching Elphaba soar, leaving Glinda to bob in her wake. A Christmas treat. Witches, after all, like the rest of the hordes from hell, were for superstition and the stage.

“The London production was obviously stronger.”

“Elphaba was too dumpy.” Camilla pontificated.

Gerry was fast learning some girlfriends tended towards witchery.

“Is that not the point? People’s actions are what count. Not their looks.”

Camille looked down her nose at him for the briefest of seconds, before dismissing him with the flick of her wrist and turning to her friend, Tilda, who smirks and shakes her head.

They had been seated in a row; Gerry, Camilla, Tilda and her new man of the moment. Gerry can’t remember his name and didn’t see the point in finding out. He seemed disengaged, eyes wandering everywhere but in Tilda’s direction. Gerry doubts he’ll be about for long.

So why am I still about? Would I be willing to give my life for Camille as Fiyero had for Elphaba? He snorts and shakes his head in dismay. Stupid question.

Camille had been fun and good looking. With the emphasis on ‘had been’. Now her fun jibes come across as criticisms, and her good looks appear plastic. Gerry tilts his head and squints his eyes, creating two burrowed lines in his brow.

Where does that leave me?

They had gone for a drink after the show. Gerry had stayed for one and then pleaded man flue. Depreciatory, but easier than saying ‘I don’t want to be in your company. I want to be on my own.’

He had wandered the streets, not sure where he was or where he was going.

Great metaphor.

He wishes to god he had some direction in life. He couldn’t for the life of him think of a time when he’d been interested enough to have a plan, let alone make a decision.

Things had been planned for Gerry. He’d been sent to university to follow in his father’s footsteps. “Corporate law, son. That’s where the money is.” He’d been fitted up with Camille. “Good looks. Good family. Good connections.” His friends were all … Gerry finds it hard to find a word to describe his friends. Mostly because he can’t quite place any.

Gerry has hundreds, it seems, of acquaintances. And yet he can’t now think of one true to goodness friend. There are the guys in the office, the guys at the gym, the guys he meets through Camille and her circle, the guys at rugby – not that he has much time for rugby these days, or anything else come to that.

Even his hundreds of acquaintances don’t seem that many after all.

And so Gerry had walked and walked, and found himself in a local wood as the mist had settled after the rain, and the darkness had taken hold. The daubed surrounds remind him of a painting he’d once saw in an art gallery. Had it been a Hodgkin?

No way, too bright. More likely a Hitchens. Drab and dreek.

The purple and black swirling mist off-set by the browning and jaundiced streaks.

Shit in a poke. What am I doing here?

He wished to god he had some direction in life.

The chill in the air catches at the base of his spine. So why are his palms sweating?

There is a hoot. His head twists in that direction. His ruddy complexion gone to white. Breathe for god’s sake. Breathe.

There are whispers behind him. He twirls. The shapes shift and the sounds swish. Gerry hears and doesn’t hear. Or hears and doesn’t understand.

“Is someone there?” His voice is too high. Get a hold of yourself.

He rolls his eyes and gives an exasperated sigh. He coughs and clears his throat. He looks about and once again wishes to god he had some direction in life. Any direction and he wouldn’t be in some stinking, mud filled wood. His nostrils expand and wriggle about as he notices the stench of rot and tries to dislodge the reek at the same time.

What is that stink anyway?

It’s unlikely God, or the gods, heard his plea for direction, let alone his odour related question. But the witches of the wood hear his heart felt invocation that night. A tendril caught at his heel, a snapped twig his ear, a movement in the distance his eye, and a pang of wanting catches his breath.

The witches of the woods have caught him in their snare.

He steps back into the arms of a tall, old oak tree, which rumbles and creaks. “Now little man, where are you going?”

Gerry frantically fought with the branches, sure the robber or serial killer, or whoever it was, had set up a trap. He’d saw such things in films. Shit. Why did I come into the woods on my own? As he scolds himself on his stupidity, and realises the futility of his failed fumbling’s, the fight goes out of him. A great shaking comes over him, accompanied by a chill fit to freeze his breath. He feels a warm trickle run down his leg.

Please god no.

The old oak tree chuckles. The floating tendrils of the witches brush against his cheek, sending goose bumps through his entire body.

“Get me out of here. Anyone! Get me out of here. Camille is that you?” Gerry shouts, hoping against hope that Camille had followed him to wherever he is now, unaware that his shouts are in silence. A silence as deep as the black wood itself, encased in the swirling purple mist and grasping grip of the witches’ tender tendrils.

He curls his lip and frowns, feeling disgusted with himself. The warmth down his leg creates a flashback. Pee the bed Bentley. How he hated public school.

Once! Christ I only did it once.

Plumes of air escape his mouth in short little pants. Too quickly. What’s going on? Get a grip of yourself.

The warmth down Gerry’s leg begins to chill in the winter frost. His trousers have become stuck. He feels cramped and restricted. His left hand automatically falls to his balls. He feels the damp patch and jerks his hand away. Wide eyes, shaking his head, and now narrowing his brow. He shrugs.

 He wonders what Camille is doing.

Laughing no doubt, thinking this is all a barrel of fun? As she had laughed when I told her about my accident. Once, for Christ sake. It had only been once.

He has a strange sensation of rising from the ground, entwined in the old oak tree branches. Or the misted tendrils? Shit! The shaking takes hold once more. His eyes are wide but seeing little in the darkened gloom. His mouth gapping, letting out no more than a whine. Even the misted air has gone.

He tries shifting his body. Moving his arm. Could he reach inside his jacket for his mobile? Who would he call? Who could he call? But it’s no good anyway. He is stuck.

Oh god. Oh god. This is no robber. God it’s a serial killer. I’m caught by a serial killer.

“Please.” He pleads. “Please. What do you want? I’ll do whatever you want. Please.”

An indecipherable humming pierces his mind. “Stop that. Stop that.”

He thrashes from side to side, stuck between the branches, the tendrils, the machinery the serial killer has used to trap him.

The humming crystallises. “The natural environment…”

It becomes louder. “…is the source…”

It takes on a sing song lilt. “…of all life. The natural environment…is the source…of all life. The natural environment…is the source…of all life.”

Gerry wanders if the clambering voices in his head are his own or the killers?

“The natural environment…is the source…of all life.”

He scoffs at his own simplicity. This must be part of the killer’s routine. He trembles violently. A great sob at last bursts from his throat.

“The natural environment…is the source…of all life.”

Gerry doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t want to be cut up by some killer. How doesn’t want to sob. “No!” He screams. “No!”

The lilting voices stop and a silence descends.

Gerry listens to the long nothingness; for a moment, for a few long seconds, for a short span of eternity. But the silence is disrupted by Gerry’s own breathing. Laboured, yet shallow. Jittery and uneven.

Other sounds encroach. Nocturnal animals as they scurry about. Screeches and hoots from the birds not yet asleep, warry of the swirling mist and its brooding agitation. The dull drone of the motorway at the back of the woods, impatiently waiting its extension through the heart of the woods itself.

The humming of the voices in his head starts up once more.

“The quality of our existences…are dependent on…the quality of our environment.”

Gerry racks his head from side to side, shaking in the grip of the mechanism holding him. He can see the branches as they weave around his body and the tendrils as they waft to and fro, disturbing the mist and the grimy bracken, jaundiced and distorted, down below.

“The quality of our existences…are dependent on…the quality of our environment.”

Gerry fights the voices as they sing their solicitation or appeal. Gerry doesn’t know which. Gerry doesn’t care. He peers towards the ground, far below, in confusion. He shakes his head in disbelief. The mist enwraps him in their loving embrace.

The faces in the tendrils materialise in front of him. They are curious, leaning forward and attentive, bored, yawning and looking about, cynical, with half twisted smiles, defensive looking with crossed arms and crinkled noses.

Gerry finds himself hysterically laughing. Crossed arms. Can misty tendrils have crossed arms? He knows his mind is playing tricks on him. I’ve been injected by something. The serial killer has done this. Setting off these hallucinations.

The thought calms him.

He wishes the killer would get it over and done with. There is no shame in giving up. A tear runs down the side of his face. He sneers as he feels the wetness; another discharge.

Why have I wasted my time so? What was I waiting for?

His face that had so recently turned white fills with colour. His blood boils. His fists and jaws clench. “Come on, get it over with. You bastard.”

“He is lost to us.”

“We must try sisters.”

“Our environment is based…on a natural cycle…between human, animal, plant and spirit…Humans are destroying that.” There are nods, murmurs of agreement, derisory snorts and loud flutters as the tendrils become more agitated.

Gerry thrashes about once more. He wants this over. He wants the voices in his head to go away. He wants to fight. He wants to know why he is being played with so?

Is this Camille’s doing? He shakes his head. It can’t be. If it is, she’s not getting her present, that’s for sure. Gerry had bought a Pandora necklace for her Christmas; exquisite and expensive. He wonders if he bought it to appease his guilt. To replace the emotions, he no longer feels for her. He doesn’t want to think about it.  He knows.

He shrieks as loud as he can, into the silence of the witches of the wood and their cocoon of tendrils and branches, and mist, and stinking piss scented mud.

“Let me go. Get me out of here. Camille is that you? Who’s there? What have you done to me?”

“The interconnectedness of the ecosystem...”

Gerry screeches over the humming voices. “Stop it. Stop it. I’ll do what you want. But you’ve got the wrong person.” A panic had taken hold. He is thrashing back and forth. His voice high pitched once more. “I don’t know what you want. It’s not me. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

His frantic twists and shouts do little to shift the branches of the tree, the tendrils of the witches of the wood, the machinery of the serial killer. Gerry wishes he could see the killers face. Not the swirling faces in the mist; the faces from his induced illusions. The real killer. Explain he has the wrong person.

He screams again. “Look at me. Let me see you. Who are you. It’s not me you want.”

The witches of the wood are incensed. Another failed attempt at communicating with these humans who seem intent on not hearing. Their derisory snorts and flushed faces, being slowly washed away in the new downpour of rain.

Gerry twists and turns in the grasp of the old oak tree, in the serial killer’s trap, in the disturbed and frantic grip of the fading tendrils. The bracken and the mud below glisten, as acidic bile, as the rain falls harder.

Gerry’s heart feels fit to burst. Flying high, defying gravity. He sneers, before stares off into the distance; a dull glaze, a burnt out passion.

The birds flail and shriek. A fox whines as it shimmies between the newly erected fencing surrounding the wood. The insects and creatures underground burrow that bit deeper. And the mist and the tendrils disapparate in a fury, ripping the heart and soul from the directionless mortal.

As Gerry dies his misted spirit mingles with the witches of the wood. There is no celebration. The witches of the wood are in despair. The demise of their home is immanent, as they fade and dwindle with each unsuccessful commune.

Terror Tales for a Winters Eve