The Wall in the Wood
Once upon a time, when your grandparents’ grandparents were themselves small children and listened to tales told by their elders, those elders spoke of an ancient time when there was a great forest that extended farther than anyone had ever explored. People from the farms liked to spend the hottest days of the greenest seasons in the safe parts of those woods, enjoying the cool of the shade and the friendly animals that would visit. Everyone knew that the opening to the woods was safe, so long as they remained on the protected side of the stone wall.
Ancient people had slowly piled stones into two walls, miles apart, and those stone walls slowly curved toward each other, eventually forming a giant horseshoe shape. Brambles and thorns grew outside the walls between the fields and the woods, and along the boundary between the fields and woods all along the forest’s edge. The people had cleared the space inside the walls of those brambles and thorns and instead planted low-lying plants and forest-dwelling flowers. Over many cycles of people’s lives, and with constant cultivation, the wooded area inside the walls was a beautiful space and it included some small glades where the trees had been carefully thinned. In time, the spaces between the stones making up the wall filled with dirt and moss and the stones themselves became covered with moss and forest litter. Insects and small creatures live in the spaces in the wall and travel between the two sides, never traveling beyond the brambles on the outside of the wall.
Young people sometimes explored beyond the safety of the wall, often succumbing to dares from people only a little older than themselves. There were telltale signs of someone who had entered the wood on the wrong side of the wall or who had climbed over the wall and quickly returned: they’d be bloodied from all the cuts from the thorns, even if they took care to wear thick clothing and hides. Sometimes there were fruits in those brambles that people claimed were particularly delicious and so people would cut their way into the spaces to harvest a basket or two. But the journey was always perilous and most people rejected the fruit because they didn’t agree that the injuries that were sustained were worth the berries.
Even the yellow, red and white seasons weren’t safe outside the wall. The thorns and brambles had fewer leaves, but the sheer volume of plants prevented sight beyond a few yards and the thorns themselves remained just as sharp. The deep forest contained many needled trees and so remained obscured and dark throughout the year. Only the woods inside the wall remained safe. And in the non-green seasons, the woods remained a favorite place of the local farmers. They would sometimes watch the harvest and freezing starshowers from within the glades, and enjoy playing in the snow during the hibernal season.
In those days there were mystical people who could control nature, animals, plants and the weather. Some of them lived in the woods and protected the people who visited. They rarely engaged the visitors, preferring instead to watch over them from a distance. The ancient people sometimes said that during the starshowers, some of these mystical people would transform into animals, even animals that didn’t exist in the natural world. Sometimes those creatures would go over the wall perhaps to hunt prey in the wild forest outside the wall. No one ever reported actually seeing one of these people change, but there were sometimes stories of bucks with many antlers that hadn’t been seen before, or single wolves behaving unlike other wolves, or other stories of animals unusual for the time or place and acting differently than expected.
Though this was long ago, this wasn’t as long ago as the times of the elves and goblins, or of the dragons and dwarves. The people of these times knew that the world had changed and that the starshowers were less dangerous and that the fantastic creatures like the dragons had long since stopped living in the world. But, rumors persisted that perhaps these mystical people who protected the visitors in the woods were themselves really elves who had survived from the most ancient of times, or that they were dragons themselves transformed into people by powerful magic, but who could turn into beasts when the stars fell.
Once, on the first evening of the harvest starshower just as dusk had settled in and the brightest of stars were visible, a girl in her eleventh year came back from harvesting berries with her mother. The two had been separated perhaps an hour earlier, when the two were sure their baskets could not get more full, and the mother was pacing in the field, looking into the brambles and shouting for her daughter. Others had recently joined the mother, some were trying to console her, others were formulating plans for cutting their way into the thorns, but only until it was fully dark. Everyone knew that once it was completely dark, no one, not even in a crowd of people with axes and torches, would dare venture into the woods outside the wall.
Just as the first glittering red stars began to fall, the girl stepped out of the brambles. Her basket was nowhere to be found, and she was covered in blood, cuts and punctures. She had a wild, vacant gaze and didn’t seem to understand her mother’s joyous cries; she also didn’t respond to the hugs and cheers of the other farmers. Everyone assumed that she’d been terribly frightened by being lost in the brambles and probably was afraid of being punished for losing her basket of fruit. Glad that she had returned, no one spoke of these things and instead covered her in extra hides and accompanied her to her home where her grandfather had started the coal oven sooner than usual, anticipating that people might come to the house.
She did not speak for years and never returned to the wood. Her parents and siblings stopped inviting her to the cool respite on even the hottest green days, and they themselves would not venture into even the safest spaces of the wood near the harvest seasons. When she was herself elderly, and feared by the young children who had told one another frightening stories about her, a bold copper-haired boy of 8 years was wandering across her unkempt fields one evening, at about the time the red starshowers would begin. He was headed home from an afternoon of play and was looking forward to spending the harvest shower with his older brothers. He mistook her for a scarecrow at first, not realizing that such a thing had never been found in her field.
She moved her gaze from the sky to the boy saying, in a dry, ancient voice, “Never travel outside the wall.” The movement of her head scared him first, and then her voice sent a chill up his back. He felt the small hairs on the back of his neck tingle, like they sometimes did when he knew he was doing something wrong, or when he was very, very excited. He knew that he should say something polite to an elder—her hair, stringy and unwashed, was gray, and her face was wrinkled. Clearly, she was one of the lucky people to live beyond 54 years. Perhaps she was even one of the few to reach 81 and so was owed honor and respect. But he was so afraid. Her voice was utterly foreign to him. It was as though her words, even though he knew them, had been spoken by something that wasn’t really a person—almost like she was an animal and not a person and his mind was just playing tricks on him, and the creature’s growls only sounded like words.
He froze, terrified. She continued staring at him. “Never!” she barked.
He ran home, tripping several times, tearing his clothing and hurting his arms.
She never spoke again.
And we know this because there are moss-covered stones in woods, often near where brambles serve as edges between the wilderness and the cultivated fields. And because everyone knows that the deepest forests are not safe for people, even in groups, and because the fruits found in the thorniest patches, while the most delicious, are rarely worth the wounds.