Alice ran, trying to shut out the voices; whispers on the edge of hearing crated a sense of dread and despair. A wave of nausea swept over her as brambles tore at her clothes. Her lungs burned as she gasped for breath and desperately sought for a way out of the forest. The sky was brighter ahead; perhaps the trees were thinning and she’d be free.
She stumbled out of the forest and into a small clearing. A low concrete building covered in ivy and grass crouched in the center. Wind chimes hanging from the porch eaves tinkled pleasantly in the breeze. Chickens looked at her quizzically as they roamed the yard and well-tended vegetable garden eating bugs and bits of stray grain.
An old woman on the porch stood and gestured to her, “Come here. The wind chimes drown out the ghosts.”
Alice approached cautiously, encouraged as the voices faded into the forest behind her. She pushed a lock of red hair back behind her ear and stammered, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize anyone lived here. I was told only ghosts wandered these woods.”
The old woman’s silver hair was cropped short and her brown skin was wrinkled from years of sun and hard labor. While she was somewhat shorter than Alice, her ramrod straight posture made her seem taller. She studied Alice with sharp brown eyes “”That they do. Are you looking for a ghost?”
Alice looked away, “I’m not sure.”
“Fair enough. Sit. I’ll make us some tea,” the old woman said as she disappeared through the door.
The wall next to the door was covered with hundreds of ID cards. Alice stepped closer, drawn to them with a voyeuristic fear. Inside, cabinet doors slammed, water poured, and cups clinked. Some of the IDs were dated over three hundred years ago. She wondered who they were then gasped aloud when she recognized one. She pulled it down with trembling hands, tears blurring the picture of her beloved Sasha. Alice sat down heavily on the bench as her hostess returned with a wooden tray laden with ceramic mugs, a pot with tea, and a bowl of honey.
“I’m Maiv, by the way,” said the old woman as she set the tray down on the table, pushing aside a pile of machine parts. Half-finished bird feeders, a disassembled fountain pump, and a variety of well-used tools were scattered across it.
“Alice,” the girl replied distantly. “Where did you find this card? All these cards?”
“In the forest,” Maiv answered simply. She examined the card. “Ah, Sasha. I’m sorry I didn’t reach her in time. A friend of yours?” She dipped a cup into the pot and set it before Alice with a spoon.
“Yes. She left a note two months ago, saying she was coming here,” Alice’s voice cracked. “I just wanted to know…”
“Ah. I have something for you then.” The woman disappeared back into the building and came out a few minutes later with a handful of items. She set a plastic lucky cat on a broken cord, a small teddy bear, and a hologram cube on the table. “I thought I recognized you from the holos. I try to get to know the people I find; maybe understand a little of what drives them here.”
Alice stared into her cup, swirling the tea around. The smell of mint and citrus wafted up comfortingly. “What is this place?”
Maiv shrugged. “People whisper about ghosts and say the forest is haunted by spirits of those who had died there over the centuries. I’m told it started with the old and infirm abandoned by families or who wandered there intentionally to avoid becoming a burden. Seen as a noble and honorable death, it slowly encompassed those seeking to avoid dishonor in other circumstances. Suicide became a quick solution to complex problems and possible social sanctions. The farming communities bordering the forest chose to ignore the problem and avoided entering it. Children are frightened with stories of ghosts that would snatch them away if they strayed too close to the edge.”
Alice frowned. “How can they just ignore it?”
“Scared, I suppose. I remember once, when I was about ten, I entered the forest on a dare. A bunch of us, one All-Hallows eve, had stood on the edge of the tree line and dared one another to go in. I don’t know which I feared more – the adults catching us or the ghosts in the woods. I finally stepped between two trees and the others followed. I remember a stillness that muffled our footsteps and whispers. Then all of a sudden, there was this noise, like the buzzing of bees. We all ran though none us knew where the impulse had come from. It by-passed our brains and went directly to our spines. We emerged running and screaming from the woods, coming to a stop a few meters from the boundary. The others collapsed in laughter and relief. I remember staring into the trees until Alma dragged me back to the safety of the bonfire. I was sure there was something in the forest watching us.”
Alice asked softly, “How can you live here?”
“That’s a fair question.” The woman considered how to answer. “I first entered the forest when I was about your age.”
Copyright 2014 Kimberley Long-Ewing, all rights reserved