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The People Of The Forest

From the Archives - Written for school coursework when I was a teenager

By Susanna KiernanPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 15 min read
Top Story - May 2023
The People Of The Forest
Photo by Neil Rosenstech on Unsplash

It was a cold and foggy morning when a man walking his dog found her standing next to a bloody body on the edge of the forest. She barely responded to the dog walker when he asked her what happened to her and if she were all right. He eventually called the police to the scene. It turned out the dead man was a wanted criminal that had been on the run for months. He had been kidnapping girls, doing god knows what to them, and then leaving them dead at their family’s doorstep.

She was taken in and only questioned on where she came from and what had happened to her. She couldn’t remember a thing, not even her name. The police decided that she had been one of the criminal’s victims and was traumatised by what she had experienced. Messages were sent between all police departments in England, but no one claimed her, no one had any idea who she was nor where she came from, so a couple in the town, Alex and Eliza Greene, adopted her as their own. She has been with them ever since.

* * *

Penelope Greene stares at the raindrops running down the bus window, lost in the loud music blaring from her ear buds. Her hoodie is pulled tight above her head and she makes sure to give off an air that tells everyone to leave her alone. Her hands are wet and her dark hair still clings to her cheek from when she ran to catch the bus. She usually just walks because she doesn’t think the town is big enough to merit a bus - her own little rebellion - but today the rain is too violent, so on the bus she goes.

A pair of raindrops trickle down the misty window. In her mind she pictures it as a race and roots for the slower one, as she always does. Some kid kicks the back of her stiff seat, but she internalises her annoyance, storing it for later when she gets to her art.

The fog outside almost blocks her view, but she sees the woods peaking out in dark green towers piercing the sky a little distance away. She shouts for the driver to stop and she jumps out into the rain. No matter how bad the weather is Penelope always walks along the woods.

She walks through the sludge and greenery, farther and farther away from the road, until she reaches the forest shaded by the overlapping branches. She treads the muddy ground beside it, never stepping across the threshold. She never does. She reaches that place, the place she always ensures she walks past every day, where she was found all those years ago.

Her mother thinks it is morbid. “You should never go down there,” Eliza often says, “It’s not good for your mind.” But it never bothered Penelope; in fact she feels quite at peace here. There is something reassuring in how she knows that this will always be the place where she was found next to a dead man. It never felt dark and dangerous. Just peaceful. The tree stump sits soggy in the bushes. The bushes rustle with the rain and woodland creatures. The wind whistles through the trees. It has never felt like the dangerous land that every one else seems to believe it to be.

* * *

Penelope tears the soaking hood off her head, her dripping hair streaking across her shoulders.

“I’m home,” she shouts into the modest house.

“We’re in the living room,” her mother calls back.

Penelope walks across the hallway, trying to shake the rain from the hair clinging to her scalp, wetting the spotless carpet. In the living room her parents sit on the sofa with cups of steaming tea nestled in their hands.

“Penelope!” Eliza shrieks, “Why are you so wet?”

“The bus broke down,” she lies, “Had to walk back.”

Eliza is up from her seat, pushing her Penelope the stairs, ordering her to get into some dry clothes. Penelope raises an eyebrow to her father over her mother’s shoulder, but she goes all the same.

* * *

After quickly changing into a new set of black jeans, black shirt and black hoodie, Penelope returns to the stairs. She pauses when she hears the murmuring voices of her family and boyfriend in the kitchen, the floorboard creaking sharply.

“Do you really think she went back there?” Alex’s whisper reaches her.

“I have no doubt,” her mother says with more force. “I phoned around just now and no one knows of this broken down bus. She lied to us.”

“Well don’t you think we should get her some help? I hear that psychiatrist down the street is very good.”

“No, she wouldn’t agree to that,” Eliza says. Her parents fall into momentary silence.

“You don’t suppose Max would be willing to drive her back after school?” Alex continues quietly. The mention of Penelope’s boyfriend in this conversation sends a sting of betrayal to her heart. “I know they finish at different times, but this would mean they get more time together. And she has so few friends…”

Penelope cannot restrain herself anymore. She storms down the stairs, pounding her feet loudly, making sure they can hear her anger. She comes into the kitchen. Eliza’s mouth hangs open. Alex straightens.

“Really?” Penelope shouts, “That’s how you talk about me when I’m not around? Like I’m a child?”

“We’re just trying to look after you,” Eliza says. Penelope can hear the implication of you are a child in her voice.

“Through controlling me,” Penelope spits, “by treating me like I am an idiot. I am eighteen. I can look after myself. I feel like a caged creature when you get like this.”

Alex reaches towards her. “Penelope,” he starts.

She backs away from him, raising her hands as if in protection.

“Don’t.” She commands. “You are supposed to be on my side.”

“I am!” He says.

All she does is scoff before turning and exiting the kitchen, going down the hall.

“Penelope?” Alex calls after her.

Penelope’s trembling hand reaches for the latch on the front door. The unmistakable click is heard by all as she opens the door.

“Penelope!” Alex calls, his voice now shaking.

She runs through the door into the night, the sky now dark in the winter months. She hears running footsteps surely following her. She turns off the street and onto the field, running toward the forest.

“Penelope, wait!” Alex shouts, “Penelope!”

She does not turn back. She runs towards the darkness of the trees, her blood boiling and raging in her veins. The footsteps near, so she speeds until she is running at a pace she has never achieved before.

She crosses into the forest.

* * *

The branches seemed to fold over her as she ran. You’re safe here. The leaves seemed to whisper. You’re home.

The nature soothed her and she slowed to a stop. Penelope laid a hand, softly, on the closest tree. She leaned against it, borrowing its strength, as her panting ruined the quiet. In and out, her breaths slowed to a relaxed pace, only the pounding of her heart was left to agitate her. Calm down, she told herself. The pounding too faded away and she no longer felt the heat of rushing blood to her head.

She patted the tree in thanks as she pushed herself off, ready to move on, but not ready to leave entirely. Penelope had never entered this wooded land and yet she knew this trodden path, she knew this grand oak, she knew the wild flowers that bloom here at the beginning of spring. It felt like a dream with the moon casting an ethereal glow around her, yet the glow seemed to be coming from within the forest. Like some living thing.

Penelope began to hear the mournful sound of a cello coming from far away, whispers of a song in the wind. She followed the music, high and light, beautiful music. It sounded like the stars.

The forest felt alive to her. An energy was apparent to Penelope that wasn’t there before, and yet it still felt so sleepy, like waking up in the middle of the night.

The twigs and leaves under her feet barely made a sound as she moved, almost gliding, across the soft ground. The sound of the cello drew closer and closer as she moved deeper and deeper into the woods. Somehow the air felt warmer to her than it had before, the harsh sting of winter air still remembered by the pinpricks on her skin.

A violin added to the ghostly music playing with Penelope’s ears. Several more instruments joined, until the music was powerful with the tortured swell of the minor key. She entered into a clearing and the breath escaped her lungs like jagged pieces of glass. Creatures hung on the trees, peering at her with their pale glowing eyes. Their claws dug deep into the trees so they hanged at impossible angles, all heads turned to her. They didn't feel threatening. The looks weren’t ones of a predator but looks of wonderment and curiosity.

Something shifted in the outskirts of the clearing. Footsteps. No not footsteps. Men and women came through the woods into the clearing, but they weren't just men and women, their lower halves were furred and hooved and their bare chests and breasts glowed like their ivory horns.

Penelope wasn't frightened. She felt she should be, but she wasn’t. Somehow this did not feel strange to her. Somehow those creatures felt normal to her. Somehow she felt a part of it.

The stream beyond the clearing began to glow. Dazzling turquoise filled Penelope’s eyes. A ripple emitted from the centre and spread out silently, like a large drop of water had pierced the surface. The top of a dark haired head emerged, and rose. Soon a beautiful pale woman was standing in the stream, dark blue glittering dress merging into the waters, impossible to tell where the dress ended and the stream began. Strangely she was dry and Penelope knew it could not be, but it was. The woman started to walk through the stream, not causing a single ripple, until she was on the land and walking towards Penelope.

A dance had started around her. Some of the creatures in the trees dropped down, the furred people stepped forward and Penelope was even certain that the woman covered in flower garlands next to her had been a tree less than a minute ago. The music became a somber waltz and the creatures turned slowly around her while the woman came closer and closer.

“Hello,” the woman said when she reached Penelope, her voice soft like the whispers of the trees, “I doubt you remember any of this.”

“What… What is all this?” Penelope asked, looking around her with eyes wide open.

“This is your home,” the woman said.

Penelope’s eyes cut to her, and seemed to make the woman hesitate to go further for a moment.

“Who are you?” Penelope asked, her eyebrows creasing.

The woman’s face softened. “My name is Freya,” she said with a sad smile, “I am your mother.”

She reached out a hand to Penelope, and the instant her soft hand made contact with her pin pricked skin her normal clothes faded away and were replaced by a pale, sky blue dress. Simple. Plain. Perfect.

“When you were young,” her mother began, “we were having a ball out here in the woods, much like the one you have walked into tonight. But there was a man, the man who took you; he was living in the woods in hiding. He came across us, and when I wasn’t looking as I should have done, he snatched you away.”

Penelope watched as her mother’s eyes filled with tears.

“I tried to save you,” Freya continued, “I ordered the trees to reach out their roots to trip him over, ordered the branches to hang low and hit him as he passed, anything to slow him down, but it was no good. You had crossed the threshold into the land of men and women and nothing else.”

Penelope returned her eyes to the dancers around them, still in her dreamlike daze.

“Why can’t I remember any of this?” She asked.

“It is a curse and a blessing we have had for a very long time,” Freya said after a long pause, “We are free to leave whenever we please, but if we do there is a price to pay, and that is our memories and powers. This came about in a time when witch burnings were common. Some left, usually to join mortal lovers, and when they mentioned us to mankind, or looked to the woods is a strange way, they were killed. No one believed them, and if they did humans came to hurt us. Our protection is in our secrecy; so the Queen at the time cast a spell and it has been that way ever since.” She reached for Penelope’s hands and grasped them in her own. “If there had been any way I would have come for you, taken you home, but you were young, so, so young, and I didn’t know how your sanity would bear. I didn’t want to hurt you in the process, you had already been through too much.”

“How…” Penelope began, not wanting to know the answer, but needing to, “How did that man die?”

Penelope felt the muscles tense in her mother’s hands. “I killed him,” she said, her voice strong by force, “With what little remaining powers I could still use so far away. I made his skin weep blood until he was bone dry. If I couldn’t bring you back I would at least kill the man that robbed you of me.”

Freya went to Penelope’s side, placing a hand softly on her back and lead her deeper into the ball towards a young man with vines clinging to his arms.

“But now you are here,” Freya said, “join us in dances, just like you used to.”

Penelope stepped forward and took the man’s gentle hands.

* * *

She walks alone in the woods, half stumbling, humming the first cello song she had heard that night; her bare feet dirty, her dark hair a mess, the dress torn in places.

A pair of hands grab her and before she can scream she is pulled into a tight embrace.

“Shit, Penelope,” Max says, panting, “We were all so worried about you. We’ve been looking for you all night. Don’t go running off like that.”

His hug pulls her back to reality and she looks around confused. She could have sworn that it was night only moments ago, but now the sun shines through the trees.

Penelope begins shrieking with laughter, ending the hug. “Max you should have been there!”

“What are you wearing?” Max says, lips tugging a smile, but his eyes speaking concern. “I should have been where?”

Penelope splays her arms behind her frantically, as if they were wings. “Out there, deep in the woods. There was music and dancing. Max it was so magical!”

Max takes one of her hands. “Are you ok? Did you hit your head on something or…?”

“You don’t believe me?” Penelope says, calming, “Come on I’ll show you.”

Before he can stop her she grabs his hand and starts pulling him through the woods, running until they reach the clearing.

“Here it is,” she says, coming to a halt.

The clearing lay empty. Just an ordinary clearing. The pale sun filtered down from the sky. The trees surrounded in a rough circle. The stream swam along at a passive pace. Nothing special.

“I’m not really sure what I’m looking for.” Max admits.

“They were all here a moment ago,” Penelope says, whipping her head around, looking up at all the branches of the trees, “They’ll be back in a moment, I’m sure.”

“Who?” He asks, but she does not respond. “Penelope, who?”

Penelope has stopped moving, but she still gazes towards the river with her back towards Max.

“The people with the glowing eyes, they hung from the trees by the strength of their claws. Men and women with horns and furred legs came to join. These trees,” Penelope lifts her arms in either direction, as if to embrace the forest, “they are all people. Real people.” She goes to the vine-ridden tree and caresses the bark. “I even danced with this one.” She sucks in a breath that makes Max tense. “And then there was my mother.”

“Penelope,” Max says, “Your mother has been home all night, worried sick.”

“Not that mother,” Penelope says, “My real mother.” She gestures frantically to the stream. “She came from the water, look I’ll show you.”

Penelope begins walking to the stream as she calls out “Mother, come out. I want to introduce you to Max.” Nothing. “Mother?” Still no response but the trickling of the water.

“Penelope?” Max says, the growing agitation clear in his voice.

“Shh Max,” Penelope says, “She won’t hear me otherwise. Mother!” She calls again.

She gets closer and closer to the stream.

“We should get you back home,” Max says.

“But I am home.”

She steps into the stream.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Mother!” Penelope screams, all feelings of joy stripped from her voice.

Max rushes to her as she walks deeper into the stream.


He grabs her as she wails Freya’s name. She thrashes against him, but it does her no good. He lifts her and carries her out of the stream.

“All of you,” Penelope screams, the edges of her voice turning hoarse, “Please!”

She continues to fight against Max’s strong arms to no avail.


* * *

“Penelope?” Eliza calls from the living room when she hears the door slam.

Penelope is already shooting up the stairs before anyone can stop her. Max stops Alex and Eliza in the hallway to explain what has happened.

Penelope bursts into her room filled with books of myths and fairytales and looks frantically at all the walls, the walls covered with her sketches, the sketches of them. All of them. Nymphs. Satyrs. Those are the creatures she saw the night before. Those are the creatures that have adorned her walls ever since she learned how to draw. Charcoal and ink. Flesh and blood. What difference does it make? They have been ever present in Penelope’s life and she never realised it.

She tears down the picture above her bed of a woman rising from a stream. She feels the presence of someone fill the doorframe behind her.

“What are you wearing Penelope?” Alex says.

She collapses on her bed, in tears, clutching the drawing to her chest. Alex rushes to her, with Eliza and Max close behind. He gently cups her face in his large hands and turns to Eliza, standing horrified in the doorway.

“Call that psychiatrist.”

* * *

Penelope sits alone in the living room.

“Trauma… PTSD… Memory loss… Coping mechanisms… Long term effects…” These are the words Penelope hears slipping through the crack of the closed door. She has given up trying to hear the specifics of what is being said between them. They’ve already decided she is mad. Hearing their verdict matters little to her when she can already sense what her fate is.

“The dress,” Penelope can hear Eliza say, “Mrs. Graham’s dress shop was broken into last night.”

* * *

The car arrives the next morning. Penelope steps out into the cold of the morning and meets Max who has come to see her off.

“I’ll still be here when you get back,” he says after a brief, unresponsive kiss, “I love you.”

Eliza and Alex Greene are allowed to come in the car with her. They said it would help her adjust when she arrives. The driver is nice, but quiet. He insists that it really is a nice place and she will be taken care of well there.

Penelope Greene just stares out the window, ignoring the rolling raindrops, to the forest. She stares, waiting, hoping to see something that will give them away. A face in a tree, a lonely furred figure, a dazzling ray of light from the stream. She sees nothing.

Nothing but the darkness of a forest at dawn.

And a pair of bright glowing eyes.

Short StoryFantasyFable

About the Creator

Susanna Kiernan

20-something English nomad trying to write some things.

Often whimsical. Sometimes dark. Always fantastical.

| Curtis Brown Creative alumni | Arts Council England funded |

You can find more of me across the internet here.

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. Expert insights and opinions

    Arguments were carefully researched and presented

  1. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

  2. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  3. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

  4. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  5. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

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Comments (12)

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  • MANOJ K 10 months ago

    Great thank u for give me wonderful reading experience keep it up give suggestions my posts and subscribe me !! HAVE A WONDER FUL DAY

  • Antoinette L Breyabout a year ago

    That was really. good, not sure what we are supposed to believe, I have such little faith in our mental health that I usually assume they will get it wrong, but she was wandering alone

  • J. S. Wadeabout a year ago

    Oooo love this most excellent story. Congratulations on TS. 🥇

  • Robbie Cheadleabout a year ago

    An intriguing tale. Quite creepy.

  • Blue Bhuttaabout a year ago

    WoW this story just captured all of my interest❤️ Absolutely love it! And congrats on a top story🎉🎉🎉

  • MUHAMMAD ANAS QURESHIabout a year ago

    Nice work keep it up ❤️❤️❤️

  • Naomi Goldabout a year ago

    Susanna, this is phenomenal. What I like most about it—well, besides the vivid descriptions—is the ambiguity of it all. We don’t know if she imagined it or not, and there are context clues that could go either way. One moment I’m like “The dress shop was broken into..” and the next I’m like, “but the bright glowing eyes!”

  • Chisi limiabout a year ago

    its good sis .keep up the work

  • Addison Alderabout a year ago

    Great work, and well done on Top Story! Really rich and surprising tale, set up and paid off neatly, and with a huge emotional arc for the main character.

  • Dana Crandellabout a year ago

    A wonderful fantasy, full of powerful imagery and emotion. A sad ending, but one can always hope this isn't the end, right? Well done!

  • Alexander McEvoyabout a year ago

    Wow That was quite the tale. I absolutely loved every word of it!

  • Nice work ❤️😉Congratulations on your Top Story🎉😉✨

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