18 Oct The Wood Man
“The Wood Man”Written by Darkly_Gathers Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 11 minutes
I know he is there—the man who lives in the forest. I am yet to see him directly, but I feel his presence nonetheless. He flows as a shifting shadow between the boughs and branches of the trees — a dancer in the darkness unheard above the creaks and whispers of the winds of the night.
He watches me through the leaves and the pines. Waiting for his moment to strike, I know it. I’m sure of it. He scares me, but I will not let that stop me. That’s what he wants. He wants to stop me from reaching it from reaching the deer.
I’m looking for it now, and I’m on its trail.
The broken branches and twigs crunch and crack beneath my feet; I’m going too fast. It’s dangerous to move at such a speed in such conditions, with little but the glimmer of the stars through the clouds and the leaf tops above to guide my way. But I can’t afford to lose the object of my quest.
The deer is otherworldly.
I may be only a kid, but I’m not stupid enough to miss such a manifestation of pure wonder and beauty when I see it.
My first sighting of the animal was about a month ago, from the heights of my bedroom window. I caught the briefest of glimpses through the glass at the creature staring back at me from the edge of the forest. Then it turned and scampered away. It has never returned to a place so close to my garden since, and each night that I go out in its pursuit, I find that I have to push deeper and deeper into the woods before I see it again.
Every time I feel the same. The beating of my heart as I race through the undergrowth; the rush of blood and wind in my ears; the growing panic that this will be the night that I fail to see it. The sequence will come to an end. I’ll have missed a predestined but unspecified period of the allotted time that the deer has grown tired of our little game and has left me alone.
I take more or less the same route every night. My parents don’t care. They’re too busy fighting to even notice my absence. I hasten through the forest. To date, the deer has always appeared on the edge of the forest’s familiarity. Just as I realize that I have entered into a new and mysterious cluster of trees, there it is. Shining through the gloom.
…And to my desperate relief, tonight, it would seem, is no different.
There stands the deer, its body a pale shimmer through the shadows of the night.
I stagger to a stop, my chest rising and falling, doing my best to keep my breathing as quiet as I can. Goosebumps shiver welcomingly up and across my skin as the deer’s wide and wary eyes stare back into mine. They shine in pale blue and ripple through soft shades of glowing green and with flickers of watery gold. Still, as stone, poised and waiting, it watches me, the soft white of its thin fur catching and reflecting the silver of the stars above.
Three antlers adorn its head. One on either side and one towards the back of its head, like a crest. All in pale, bone-like white.
I feel in its gaze, as always, the strongest of sensations that it wants me to follow. That it is leading me somewhere. Somewhere unearthly and important and mystical beyond comprehension.
I take a slow step.
My foot crunches softly into the roots and grass beneath.
I take another.
The deer, I swear, grows accustomed to me. Unless it is my imagination, I feel as if I can draw closer and closer with every passing night.
I try for a third, but the deer bolts.
It turns with rapidity and darts at once-off and away into the darkness of the forest.
And I do as I always do.
With the wind in my hair and the ferns about my feet, I follow.
This is always the moment when I become aware of the man in the woods. I sense his presence around me, following. It is urgent and frightening. He is after me. And not in the same manner that I am after the deer, I know this.
‘Stay BACK!’ I wish to call out to him, but I daren’t, not for fear of disturbing the deer.
I tore through the murk and shadowed green of the forest as the shine of the deer grew dimmer and dimmer.
“Wait!” I whisper. “Please!” But the deer does no such thing. It bounds through the undergrowth, becoming harder and harder to see.
Where does it go? I think to myself.
Where will it lead me?
…But as fate decides, tonight is not the night that I am set to find out.
The deer has disappeared now. I stumble after a little while longer, following its trail…but it is fruitless. I cannot see…I do not know which way it fled.
So I buckle, breathing heavily, panting and struggling.
The branches shake in the breeze, a breeze much colder now than it was mere minutes ago…and the eyes of the man in the forest fall heavily upon me, unseen in the dark.
There is nothing to do now but to steel my resolve, to turn, and to retreat the way I came.
It becomes harder to do each time as I begin my journey from a new location each night, a location slightly deeper into the thrall of the mysticism of the midnight woods.
The shadowed shape of a figure to my left bids me hastily turn, teeth grit, but I see nothing but the shivering leaves of a bush that has grown over the corpse of a fallen tree.
I push aside a branch, retracing my steps, back through the forest.
The man will not hurt me. I will not let him. The man will not hurt me.
I keep this mantra and nothing else in the forefront of my mind the entire walk back. It takes much longer this way. It is as if the forest itself has stretched; whatever wordless magic it was that allowed me to keep pace with the deer has vanished along with it, and I am left to fumble my way back to the edge of the woods alone.
I fear becoming lost out here. I do.
And I fear the man in the shadows.
But it is worth it. It is all worth it for the chance to see and to follow the deer.
He shouldn’t try to hurt me now, the man.
Not now that I’m on the way back, I get the sense that he’s just seeing me out.
This is how I’ve rationalized my decisions, at least. I don’t know what he wants or who he is. Not really.
So I keep coming back.
Night after night, I return, each with the growing fear that I will miss the deer, that it will have abandoned me… But I always see it. And I swear, I SWEAR that I grow closer with every one of my pursuits…
But still, it evades me. As a dissipating dream in the embers of the morning, so it goes.
It’s all I can think about these days—the deer and where it leads.
I don’t know if my parents are still fighting. I imagine they are, but I don’t particularly care.
And ever the man follows. He, too, draws closer.
I have long since given up trying to protect my arms and legs. There is little point now. They are coated in scrapes and scratches and scars from the forest; lines and marks in white and red that carry up and across my neck, my shoulders… All trivial. All more than worth it for another chance at following the deer to the end of its path.
Where does it go? Where does the deer lead? With growing desperation, I follow. Pleading silently with the deer to slow; for the obstacles of the forest to relent, just a little…but they never do.
They never do.
My determination will see me through.
Even through the drive of the rain, kicking up the mud puddles, thick comes the green-dank filth and spray of the forest water, still yet to stream but rippling and frothing with hungry patience under the fall.
Every dusk-gone evening now, I push so far, so deep into the forest…getting out there to see the object that occupies my thoughts and then trudging reluctantly back…it takes up most of the night. My dreams, when I have them, are broken and thick, but it is worth it. It is all worth it. My exhaustion helps with the fear; I am less afraid when my mind cannot work to its full capacity. The power of the watching man is diminished. He wants the deer for himself. It is the only explanation.
If he wanted me dead, he would have made the strike already. He is a coward if he is even dangerous at all. The only fear I now allow is the knowing, biting terror that I will lose the deer. I cannot skip even a single night. I cannot risk a moon-tempered world of shadows in which the deer’s eyes do not meet mine.
I’m in pursuit right now.
My hand reaches out.
The deer blurs in my vision, appearing as two, then one, and then back to two.
But I am so close. My fingertips are mere inches from the silver-white and impossibly fine fur of its hide…so close…
If I can only touch it, then surely it will know me. It will wait for me. And it will lead me gently to wherever it is that it goes in the depths of the night.
I cry out in sudden alarm as my foot is caught in a twisted root. I fall, stumbling and crashing into the undergrowth in dismay; pain bursting through my elbows and jaw. The deer is, once again, lost to the forest.
“NO!” I shout, sprawled in the muck. “NO! PLEASE! Come BACK! DEER! COME BACK!”
…But it does not.
Sobs wrack my fevered body as I wallow in my defeat. The ferns and brambles brush aside my head…beaten down, I nonetheless clamber wearily to my feet, and I feel his presence.
The watching man.
Anger overcomes me.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT, FREAK OF THE FOREST?” I shout with rage into the darkness. “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME? Do you want me gone, Stranger? I will never relent, NEVER! The deer does not belong to you!”
“No,” comes the response, to a chilling of my blood. “No, it does not.”
I stand stock-still, breath caught in my throat. My surroundings are dark, caught only in the highlights of the beams of the stars; faint through the drifting clouds and the creaking branches, but it is enough.
“Show yourself,” I whisper.
And he does.
Little more at first than the groaning of a nearby tree, the rough scratchings of bark tipped in silver-white…but the tree bends too far. Greater than that of its brothers, further than the wind would warrant, it cracks and creaks, and as it steps from shadows, I see that it is no tree at all. It is a man. Shadowed and dark, but still quite clear enough. Twigs, broken and fresh alike, grow out from his limbs. A branch grows up from his shoulder and the side of his neck, entwined with layer upon layer of moss across his broken-bark skin. Roots slither down his side and cover his legs; they are his legs, I realize, to my deep disturbance; he stumbles and shuffles with the gait of one who has forgotten how to walk…
I stare at the man in terror, but also with confusion. This…this can’t be the thing that has pursued me through the forest. There’s no way. There is no grace here. No nimble flow or dance. This thing is…it’s scary, yes, but it’s also…sad.
He raises the rotted log of his head, and a cracked hole in the wood reveals a silvery eye, shining eerily like a polished pearl.
“You’re the one who follows me,” I murmur, heart a-pound in my chest. “You’re the one who wants the deer for yourself.”
“I have followed you, yes,” says the man made of wood. “Though to say I have ‘watched’ would be the more accurate word. There are others like me in the forest. Those with greater apt in body, if lesser in mind.” The man’s voice breaks like the splitting of a log. “I have seen you, boy. You think you are the only one in pursuit of the white deer?”
The sorrowful sounds of the wind sigh long and low through the trees.
I adjust my stance, just a little, mouth dry.
“Who are you?” I ask as the man shifts his weight from one forest leg to the other.
“I am the root that has turned away from the tree. The others burrow ever deeper searching for their sustenance, but I have no use for such, now. The forest will claim me regardless. I don’t doubt it. But I have made my choice.”
His words make little sense to me, but for some reason or another, they land heavy; I struggle with a sudden and unwelcome rush of emotion.
“I don’t understand,” I force out. “Why show yourself to me? Why try to stop me? That’s what you’ve been trying to do, right? To reach me? To stop me? Why would you ever want to do such a thing? The deer is beautiful. It’s magic.”
“Beautiful, yes. Magical too, without a shadow of a doubt.” The man turns his head with a creak and looks over past my shoulder. His eyes flash, and I turn to see.
The pine-needled branches sway overhead…
…and there stands the deer.
Out and away in the forest, silent and stock-still.
It is waiting for me. I know it. My heart leaps. Never before has it done this. Never before has it stopped and turned back to me after I had begun my pursuit.
The moon’s light and stars are caught amid the prongs a-three atop its pale head.
The man speaks on.
“But it is more than that. More, and yet, somehow much less. The deer has given you nothing, boy.”
“But I need to know,” I croak out. “I need the truth.”
“I know better than most the truth of the deer. I know, I know. Do you think that I haven’t followed the creature myself? Year after year have I followed. My pursuit has taken me farther and further than most. It has taken everything from me.”
“So you know, then,” I murmur. My throat feels tight and raw. A lump rises. “You know where it leads.”
“Aye,” the man replies as the branches and leaves of the forest steadily rock and shiver in the bluster of the growing gale.
“Where?” I whisper.
“Away,” he replies.
A tear, warm and fast, slips from my eye and leaves in its wake a clear trail through the forest-grime that stains my cheek.
“I cannot leave this place. You can tell this for truth by a simple glance at my twisted form. But it has not yet sent roots into you, in any sense of the phrase, despite what you might think. So go, lad. Leave the deer be. Leave it be.”
My gaze remains fixed on the deer—this wonder from another world.
I want to follow. I want to follow so badly.
And this will be my final chance to do so, I realize. In my heart of hearts, I know.
It struggles fiercely with my head for the domination of their direction.
But a reluctant choice is made.
“Go,” I whisper through the woods, soul strained and taut to breaking. “Go, before I can bear it no longer.”
And just like that, the deer turns and bounds away. Like the reflection of the moon on a rippling lake, it shimmers and flickers, it sparkles and shines… and then it is gone.
Heart heavy and constitution confused, I turn to the man made of wood. He of the forest. The specter.
But he, too has gone.
So I wipe the haze from my eyes. I place one foot in front of the other, and I drag myself back home.
The way is long and twisted, but it is sure.
The light of the moon, a brighter silver than ever I have seen it, solemnly but openly guides the way.
* * * * * *
My parents were there to welcome me home. Scared and stressed but bright with relief, their warm embrace was a great surprise.
You know, I didn’t realize how much they cared.
I still dream about the deer in the forest, Reader. I’ve been back into those woods a dozen times or more, all in the light of the day, mind, but I cannot retrace my steps as hard as I try. And you know, I’ve been right around the edge of the forest, to the coast. I don’t know how I could have run so deep in the dead of night. It scarcely makes sense…
…There’s a power within the place. One that I do not understand, and one that I am no longer sure that I care to.
To be quite frank, I think it’s best I go away for a while.
A long while, ideally.
And a long way away.
The deer has left upon me its mark, and I am forever changed. But I will not be bound to it.
From the warmth of my bedroom window, the last time I shall look from such a place before my travels, I turn my gaze from the edge of the forest and up to the glow of the sky. I see in the shining silver of the moon that eye of the man in the forest.
I will dream of his face, tonight. I shall dream of the woods, and I shall dream of the deer.
That is all they will be.
They will be dreams.
And that is okay.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A