The Others' Woods
The monsters in the woods are closer than you realize...
“The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window.” The old woman began, her ancient, scratchy-sounding voice projecting across the busy tavern as she leaned forward on a rickety stool.
I had never seen the hag before she rolled into the village in her decrepit wagon this afternoon. But she hobbled into the tavern and took up one of the better seats as soon as she arrived with the self-confidence of a village elder. She was close to the fire, which lit only half her face, highlighting sagging wrinkles and a devious glint in her green eyes. Her hair hung in a long silvery plait across her shoulder, that swayed as she skimmed her gaze over the assembled merry makers scattered across the tavern. As if bewitched by her tale, the room fell silent, and we collectively leaned in.
“Long ago, these woods belonged to the Others. Men sought out new fertile land and foolishly wandered into these woods a century or two ago. They cleared a space, right out there,” she said with a gesture of her frail hand to the rough wooden door that stood between us and the rapidly-cooling summer night air.
“For many years after humans came, the Others stayed deep in the woods, only daring to venture closer for a look in the darkest hours of the night. But as they grew angrier over the humans in their woods, so too did they grow bolder.”
A chill snaked up my back as I sat transfixed by the old woman’s story. Her voice was hypnotic and the flames dancing in the fire lulled me into almost a dream.
“The villagers noticed the strangeness, but they did not heed the warnings. They disregarded the screeches of the Others as coyotes. But no one ever saw a coyote in these woods. When a farmer would find a sheep torn to shreds, he would curse the wolves. But wolves were too smart to linger in the Others’ woods."
I couldn’t help but picture the torn-to-pieces lamb I had passed as I came into the village today. Its blood had turned the small creature’s wool so red that I almost couldn’t tell the lamb had been white as freshly fallen snow.
"When glowing red eyes would watch them from the trees, they would scoff and say ‘must be a raccoon.’ But they knew that the strangeness was something worse. They’d rush home, and shut their doors, bolting them against things they did not understand.”
As she spoke, the wind rattled the shutters on the window, and I jumped slightly from where I sat on the floor near the hearth. The old woman’s eyes locked with mine and a wicked smile stretched across her old, weathered face.
“Still, humans did not leave the woods. The Others were very angry, but they do not age as mortal men do. So they waited. They learned to take the form of humans and began to come into town, first as traders. Eventually, they built the cabin in the woods, and for some time, they lived in peace with humans. Their children married human children, and the village prospered.”
We all knew which cabin she spoke of, but had never heard this tale before. The cabin is a bit away from the village, half a sand fall to walk if you knew which path to take. It was somewhat of a challenge among the young people of the village to wander through the woods to the cabin.
Most only dared touch the door. The brave would push in the decrepit piece of wood that had once been the door and venture inside. Those that did dare go inside always came out with an odd, dazed look on their faces, while assuring their friends that there was absolutely nothing in the cabin.
I knew of the cabin better than most. I was forced to walk past it every time I went home.
“It all changed the night the candle burned in the window of the cabin.” The hag spoke again, shaking me out of my thoughts. “The Others shed their mortal disguises that night. Their faces were those of loved ones, but the whites of their eyes were swallowed by darkness that leaked down their cheeks in inky black tears. Their fingers turned black and stretched into long claws, and their skin turned moist and sticky. The Others turned on the villagers that night. Wives slaughtered husbands. Sisters murdered sisters. Kind neighbors turned bloodthirsty.”
Unease settled over the room, as we exchanged anxious glances with our neighbors and families. I shook off the discomfort by assuring myself that it was just a story. A piece of fiction. The old woman was practically salivating over the obvious terror in the room, and her wicked grin widened as she continued.
“I was there the night the Others attacked. I was just a girl, not much older than you, my dear,” she said as she reached her bony fingers out to me. “I was outside, gathering tart summer berries in the fading light when the first scream pierced the air. It was horrifying.” The memory should have been terrible, but as she spoke her smile grew wider.
I caught her gaze, and I could have sworn the green irises of her eyes flooded black. The darkness continued to overflow into the whites of her eyes until they were nothing but inky black pools. I blinked and it was as if it had never happened.
I’d had enough. This old woman made my skin crawl. I stood and brushed past some friends, excusing myself as I made my way to the exit, though no one seemed to notice my interruption.
I stepped out under the night sky and sucked in a breath of cool air, trying to calm my nerves. But the peacefulness of night did nothing to soothe me. I felt as if I was being watched, and I moved quickly toward the path home.
Every crack of a branch or hoot of an owl made me jump, and I cursed myself for my cowardice. The woods were pitch black around me. I strained my eyes to make out the path, wary of roots and thorns that hid in the dark.
A warm glow of light washed over the path and I was momentarily grateful to be able to see the ground in front of me. Or, I was grateful until my eyes fixed on the lone candle in the cabin window. I froze where I stood on the muddy path, and simply stared at the candle flicker for a minute or two.
Then I heard the screams.