The Force Within Her
An All-Female Fantasy Retelling Based Upon Local Folklore From the South of England.
Ten translucent fingers wrap around the warm leather wheel of my convertible. The sage green Triumph leisurely twists and turns with the forest road. Gnarly trees weave together above the snaking, potholed concrete. I approach Newtown, a village nestled deep in the New Forest and my home for the next few days. Curls of red hair stream behind me in the cool southern breeze. Speckles of sunlight tickle the constellation of brown freckles on my flushed cheeks. I inhale the damp, earthy scent of the untamed wilderness deep into my lungs. Phthalo green leaves rustle playfully as the car creeps down a narrow curving lane. My chestnut eyes spot the wooden sign with ‘Woodside Lodge’ carved into its flesh. I turn the wheel, pulling into the charming holiday let.
Once inside, I collapse onto the bed. I close my eyes and tears begin to flow. I roll onto my side and hug my sketchbook tighter against my burgundy corduroy pinafore. I smell the familiar scent of charcoal on paper. My knees find their way up to my chest. Grief tears its way through my body and makes its den in my stomach. How do I go on existing by myself? What is my purpose now? The last few months since his funeral have been rough. I need this chance to be alone with my thoughts, my sorrow, and my sketchbook. I want to surround myself with the ‘aliveness’ of the world, rather than my own emptiness. I need to find purpose again.
After a long, good cry, I sit up. I notice the papers crumpled beneath me. I turn my attention to the walking guides. Studying the map on the back of the top leaflet, I realize that this one begins nearby. I flip the shiny paper over and read ‘Acres Down & Puckpits Inclosure’. I wipe away the smudges beneath my eyes and pull on my mustard yellow wellington boots. I shove my art supplies under one sodden cream, lettuce-hem sleeve and exit the lodge.
I pass the Acres Down Farm Shop and travel westward, following the designated track for some time. Finally, when I reach the 'Inclosure', I perch on a large tree stump. I take out my art supplies, laying them out on my lap. After studying the clearing ahead, I begin to sweep obsidian across the parchment. I sketch everything. The deep orange ferns springing up from the earth. The syrup-coloured leaves laying crisp on the ground, discarded between strands of emerald. Mossy green shrubs and bushes circling the bottom of an old birch with sky-high ashy tendrils. I swap my charcoal for a cylinder of white chalk to add a finishing touch of highlight. I hesitate, noticing an object absent from my drawing. Hiding in the brush, I spot the wooden panels of a barn. It is barely visible through the thick vegetation. A barn that certainly was not there before. I look down at the page in disbelief and then back at the misplaced structure. How could I have missed it?
Leaving my sketchbook open on the stump, I heave myself onto my feet and venture towards it. It is a small, grey, broken thing with worn, ivy-covered planks and doors that hang at an angle by rusted hinges. It has lost the war against time. The loose planks creak in the wind, dust gusting through the cracks. Wafts of damp and rot attack my nostrils as I approach. I push open one crooked door. The wind picks up, beating me with leaves. The air itself lets out its wild, mighty roar. I smile, flooded with the promise of adventure and step inside.
I tear through a wall of leaves and gasp in amazement. On the other side, the forest continues, only the forest is inside the barn. The walls stretch out of view in every direction and the roof remains invisible behind a sky of tittering green. How can this be? How is this possible? There is a whole world in here! The barn was small out there, but in here it is infinite. In front of my feet lay a perfect line of tiny, glowing mushrooms. I place one yellow boot forward over the line of speckled fungi, carefully followed by the other.
‘Curiouser and curiouser’, I quote, admiring the magic of it all.
After a few minutes of walking, I hear a noise in the bushes ahead. I freeze. A small squeal hikes its way up my throat and explodes through the quiet forest. The bush itself rises to reveal a pair of eyes the same colour as the long grass and ivy that covers the creature’s head and body. Small white flowers peep out from the grassy camouflage across its head and back. The humanoid head screams. Its two thin arms drop the logs within its grasp. Its four horse-like legs stumble backwards in shock and a long branch-like tail shakes behind its hind legs in fear.
‘You shouldn’t be here', it quakes.
I break out into a run, heading westward, travelling deeper into the wilderness. I run and run and run… right into a wall of wooden planks. I lay in the grass clutching my sore head. As I regain composure, I realize that the object blocking my path is not the barn wall but a large box. I pick myself off the floor, brushing away the clumps of leaves that stick to my grazed knees and begin to circle the peculiar cube. It is as big as my car. An oak-wood box fastened shut by hundreds of tiny, bent nails. I notice a small square hole on the opposite side that reveals a dark interior. I creep closer, inquisitiveness consuming my rationality. I press my hand to the rough surface and peer into the abyss. The smell of faeces and death assaults my senses, forcing me to recoil. A pair of serpentine eyes blink open in the darkness and a long flailing arm shoots out.
‘Help me, please’, a voice begs.
I stare flabbergasted at yet another leafy creature. A weak feminine voice repeats the cry over and over. I could see her eyes tear up with grief and helplessness. As I peer deep into her eyes, I witness myself, my own grief and helplessness. My instincts demand that I help the distressed creature.
‘Don’t worry, I am going to get you out of here’, I say with determination.
‘Thank you, thank you, thank you’, she continues to gush, relief coating her voice.
The creature relaxes and her arm retreats. I search for a way to open the box. I try to pry out some nails with my bare hands but there was no way in or out. Someone must have built the box around her. I was going to need something to break it down. I press myself against the hot surface and shout into the hole.
‘I can’t get you out without tools. I will come back for you.’
‘No, please don’t leave me in here’, she pleads, grabbing onto the strap of my pinafore to pin me in place.
I raise my muddied hand to hold hers and maintain eye contact with the creature.
‘I will come back for you. I promise.'
She sniffles and releases her grip on my pinafore. Our hands still clasp together for a brief interval. Her hands are frail, bloodied and clammy, etched with years of isolation and sorrow. I let her hand drop and retreat to the barn doors.
A couple of hours later, I manage to find my way back with a sledgehammer in hand. I rush to the small hole and peer inside. The fading light makes it hard to see but I can just make out two hooved legs slumped against the wall.
‘Hey’, I whisper, realizing I do not even know what to call the strange being.
The thin legs twitch and I hear her stir. Her face tells me that she had not expected me to return. She smiles with joy for a moment, until her face darkens once more.
‘I promised to set you free, and I intend to keep that promise’, I say.
‘Please don’t’, she yells, shaking her hands as I begin to raise the sledgehammer.
Confusion washes over my face as she staggers back into the depths of the box. She begins to rasp and splutter, dehydration making her words indistinguishable.
‘I am not going to let you die in here’, I reply, swinging the sledgehammer into the oak. I hear the crunch of splintering wood and swing again.
‘Stop! Please! Stop!’ she cries, but it is too late.
She stares in horror at the broken wall and screams, ‘What have you done?’
‘You wanted me to help you! I am not leaving you in this box to die.’
She clambers out and I help her to her feet. She wobbles and I catch her, wrapping my arm around her waist. I notice that she is not quite like the other creature. She has two leafy, goat-like legs, and a pair of broken lemon-toned wings. I cannot help but stare at her for I had never seen such an unusual and beautiful creature. Hundreds of wilted bluebells cover her grassy mane and torso. Her eyes were not serpentine but striking deep pools of turquoise. I stand there dumbstruck. She blushes.
‘We need to go now!’ she demands.
I check back into reality and help her hobble in the direction of the barn doors.
‘So, why were you locked in there?’ I ask.
‘My village has kept me imprisoned my whole life. They feed me scraps, but only enough to prevent me from dying. All because I am different. I am cursed.’
She sighs and persists, ‘We need to hurry'.
A million questions buzz through my mind. I eye her with scepticism and brave the questions that pique my interest most.
‘What do you mean “cursed”? What are you? Do you have a name? Are there more like you? Why do we need to hurry?’
She ignores me, her attention drawn elsewhere.
'You didn't answer me.’
Before I can question her any further, she collapses, crying out in agony.
‘What is it? What’s wrong?’
She looks up at me. Her eyes are now completely jet-black and an unfamiliar voice chokes one word.
I stumble through the forest, leaving the creature writhing on the floor behind me. My mind is telling me to go back but my legs propel me further away. Cool twigs snap against my chest and fresh leaves cut into my flushed cheeks. The earthy smell grows more intense as the night pulls in and I begin to choke. A sudden roar breaks out, sending a pillar of wind and dead plants into my back, knocking me to the floor. I scramble in the mud, trying to gain a foothold when I hear a thump behind me. I spin around. Gazing down at me is the biggest lion I have ever seen; only the lions I know do not have large antlers. I silence my breathing and lay still, trying to calm my thumping heart. The golden beast’s fiery breath wisps around my neck and I claw my hands into the damp dirt, bracing for a quick death. But the lion remains still.
I see my face, wrought with pure fear, reflected in the pair of jet-black mirrors. Looking into the eyes I notice the familiar mark of grief and hopelessness. I recognize her and she recognizes me. We are the same. I shuffle backwards, crushing the intricate line of mushrooms behind me. Feeling confident that she would not harm me, I turn to pull the door wide open and clamber through. I slam the door behind me, just as a plague of screams erupts from the forest within. For the first time in a small eternity, I had a purpose. I don’t break my promises and I will find a way to save her.
About the author
I write non-fiction, fantasy, science fiction and poetry, as well as review literature. Follow me on instagram at @undertherowantree and for just writing related posts @writingwithundertherowantree.