photo credit: Dobby’s Dog’s
There’s a clearing by the woodshed, next to a pile of trash and tires and waterlogged stumps. We’re letting it get big before pouring gas on it, since we don’t know how to light fires without some kinda starter. Sometimes we throw in primers from Dad’s woodshed, the exploders at the ends of shells that shove the bullets out. They snap and burst and threaten to burn us up, but we’re too quick so they lick the tree limbs overhead.
When the weeds around the fire pit get too tall my brothers get rifles and load them with bird shot shells, the kind with little ball bearings that spread out wide once you pull the trigger. The stalks get cut down ‘til they’re flat and make a clearing. I’m always worried the stray pellets might hit the neighbors on the other side of the pit, or the bullets from our bored target practice might hit a hunter back there in the woods, across the pond and we’d never know it. The bullets hafta hit something to stop.
We step into the clearing. “Grab your sticks and carve: name, date, expedition; the mud’ll remember us forever.” I told them. My sister, Chloé, is the leader. I let her be it, even though I’m the oldest. It was her idea anyway, and her friends are here so she’s gotta save face. At least I got to name it. She’s taking us on a tour of the back acres down the big hill, behind the pond. First we follow the creek to the baby waterfalls and slide and splash over its ridges. If I lay flat with my head back and slide I’m small enough to sink to the bottom. We take turns for a while, until Chloé says it’s time to go.
photo credit: Faris Kalin
Up the creek there’s a tall, muddy bank with tree roots jutting out, so we sideways climb along it. I’m afraid the little ones might fall, so I spot while they’re up high: “Don’t jump down from all the way up, it’s too tall.” Chloé calls us on to the rotted out tree leaning over the creek and we take turns balancing across. A few of us fall and flop around in the water.
Down a trail we find Dad’s rusted out truck, tires flat and caked with mud and glove box hiding papery wasp nests. Chloé tells the story of how my brother’s were standing in the back, holding on to the cab yelling: “Floor it!” at Dad. He listened; only one of them didn’t have a good enough grip and flew out the back, cracking up his skull on the cement. I wonder if the crack up’s what turned him mean. Mom said he used to hold me when I was real little, and he’d say I was “his baby”. Now he just punches and kicks and tells me I’m stupid; and when he gets all whiny and treats me like his baby I don’t like it anyway.
photo credit: Huw Morgan
Further in there’s a pond I’ve never seen before. We step off the trail into this large bite out of the Earth and swim, shouting: “look at the tadpoles! It’s full of ‘em!” We stay here for a while, trying to catch as many as we can before they slip and slither away. Chloé calls us on along another trail and we come up to a huge empty basin of Earth, “Woah, that’s even gianter than tadpole alley! Just without the water.” It’s darker than up here on the trail, and full of ashy, dead trees—like they couldn’t make it out so they gave up and shriveled. Suddenly it’s not just dark in the dead tree pit, but up above it too, and I say “Hey Chloé, maybe it’s time to head back?” She nods and leads us away from the dark. It catches up.
We’re hurrying now, no one stops to splash or climb, we just file along behind our leader. The woods are mean at night, they twitch and jolt and crop up briars to slice up our bare feet. Group morale has fallen from glee into paranoia, and our leader turns to me along with everyone else, big, dark eyes filled up with tears. I’m the oldest; it’s my job to get us out. I can’t be scared like the rest of them. So I tell them: “Hold hands. Stay close.” And we walk. But being older doesn’t mean I know where we are anymore than Chloé did, I just pretend like I do so they’ll stop crying. “Come on guys, we gotta get home before Mom kills us. I’m surprised she’s not yelling for us yet.” For once I hope she does start yelling, then we could follow her screams home, but all I hear are cracks and whistles and sharply drawn breaths from my followers and me.
We stumble around the scratchy briars and low hanging branches, and I wish I had a hand to hold like my sniffley followers. I start to worry about witches and every noise becomes occult before hitting my ears and in my head all I hear is screaming. “Come on guys, just a little further.” I lie. I’m the oldest. I can’t cry and hold hands like them. The witches’ll get us then. In front of us there’s a clearing, and I can see it’s a little brighter than in here. My heart jolts, “There! See it’s brighter there, we made it!”
The ground gets sloshy near the light, and I climb through enough to see we’re on the back end of the pond. I think about swimming across, but I’m afraid of dark water and what’s under the haze. Plus I really don’t think the kids are up for it. I look back at them shuddering; I’m the oldest, I can’t leave them. “It’s the pond! We can’t swim across, but we can just make our way around to the stream and the clearing where we came in. We’re almost there, I swear it.” They grip on tighter to each other’s hands, and I hold on tighter to my stick.
photo credit: Panoramio
The only light is from the moon now, and the kids wouldn’t go far enough in to get back to the trail so we’re climbing over a mess of rough branches to keep close to the bank. It’s cold, too, and all our stomachs are grumbling, “I hope Mom cooked a good dinner for us.” Nobody says anything back, but I can tell by their same sniffley breathing they’re behind me. The moonlight bounces off the water and I can see we’re at the inlet. I crawl through a little ways, “It’s the front, guys! We’re at the front! I can see the yard!”
They’re breathing longer now, and even smiling a little until I say, “There’s a lot of thorn bushes in the way, though. I think it might be better if we try to find the clearing.” I turn back to see their faces, distorted by the moonlight and the thought of what’s waiting for them back in the woods. Past their faces is a thick blackness swaying and jolting with movement, and I know we can’t go back in. “It’s okay, we can make it from here if we swim.” I use my mud carving stick to thrash the thorny briars out of our way, but they still nip us as we crawl through one by one.
“Alright, who’s first?” I say to the huddle, and we each start slipping into the water, while the rest of us all edge up close behind. Chloe’s friends are swimming across and so is our little brother, I motion for her to go next but she shakes her head, “No, you first.” I look back to see her drop in behind me and we pull ourselves up onto the bank. I smile and say, “See, I told ya it’d be okay.” I can’t believe we made it out of there. We stop smiling when we see the house up the hill, and Chloe says: “Mom’s gonna kill us.”
“Don’t worry guys, I’ll explain everything.” I promise. But when we get up the hill and sneak inside we don’t have to explain at all. Mom’s plopped in her chair watching TV, eating graham crackers thick with butter and jelly. She didn’t notice we’ve been gone, or how we’re dripping across the linoleum. I stand behind her chair and motion for them to sneak past before slinking away too. We change our clothes and eat cereal for dinner. I fall asleep and have witch woods nightmares.
photo credit: The Blair Witch Project