Writer,Sandra Shippy, Sandra Johnson, short stories, radio plays, DIVERSITY website
In the Wilderness
‘Oh Jenny it’s delightful. So….. so charming.’
The grownups’ voices floated on the air, drifting down upon their heads like soft raindrops while they raised eyebrows at each other grimaced, rolling their eyes in the way that boys who know each other very well and like each other’s company (most of the time) do.
It was common knowledge to them and their peers that, around the age of ten, most boys knew all there was to know and certainly more than parents who were there to be tolerated as the providers of the larger things in life aspired to such as bikes, skateboards, trainers, trips abroad and all the general, briefly, but frenziedly desired objects that would be despised and out of fashion as soon as they were acquired.
The desires and acquisitions of parents were one of the few things that still mystified them.
Thomas and Zack pottered on their feet, heel and toeing it so that the rubber of their trainers bent backwards and they performed a mad kind of modernistic ballet, closer and closer to the edge of the long waving grass that faded in turn into the small, but to their minds, more than adequate wood. They were desperate to escape and explore.
Thomas glanced behind guardedly.
His mother’s thin face had brightened under the compliments of their friends Margaret and Daniel, while his father, with an air of nodding nonchalance, accepted the same as only right and proper.
Jenny was flushed, triumphant, wisps of soft, blonde hair escaping the loose-knotted bun at the nape of her neck. Jenny and Margaret were very close. Both wore clothing reminiscent of Laura Ashley. Expensive, but crumpled for that ‘I’m quite well off but don’t give a damn about it look’ that they carried off to perfection.
Margaret of course was thinner, sharper, her dark hair coiled into a neat braid that swung down her back like a schoolgirl. No one however, ever called her ‘Peggy’ or ‘Maggie’. She tolerated no abbreviation of her name, not even from so-called loved ones.
They both clasped hands excitedly while Daniel and Henry stood, a little condescendingly apart, giving each other glances of much the same nature as those exchanged between Thomas and Zack.
There was no denying the new house was old. Old, large, rundown and ripe for conversion. It sagged a little in the middle but, as Jenny emphasised ‘ a few choice upright beams, a new roof, paint and masonry and we’ll have our own country mansion.’
Thomas and Zack whispered together, first one and then the other giving a hop and a jump as occasional punctuation.
They had seen the inside of the house.
More rooms than they could possibly be interested in, some even with debris lying on the floor. Thomas was very glad they would not be moving in until the repairs were finished, but enjoying the prospect of a picnic lunch and time away from the cramped, three bedroom apartment they currently resided in.
The day was fine and fair and his feet and fingers fairly itched to part the grass, crawl on his stomach, play Indians or Spacemen and seek out the enemy in the little wood. He had never seen so much space for one house before and he knew that Zack hadn’t either.
‘Bet you wish you were living here.’
‘Bet I don’t. Wait ‘till the creepies from the wood get in your bed at night.’
‘There’s no creepies – it’s not that sort of wood.’
How d’you know? You been there before?’
Thomas was nonplussed. He had no defence but he knew better than to give Zack the last word.
‘I just know that’s all. You’ll see. It’s……it’s just a bit of wood. It’ll be great for playing in.’
Zack smiled darkly.
‘Things live in woods. There’s always things in woods. Wild things.’
Thomas shrugged and turned away.
He was sure he was right but he was hot and thirsty and sometimes Zack could be too persistent and it tired him. Made his head hurt. Anyway he wasn’t going to let Zack frighten him – he was just jealous. Jealous that Thomas had a wood and he didn’t.
His mother waved to them and reluctantly they dragged themselves slowly up the slight incline of ragged cut lawn. Jenny and Margaret had neatly laid out the picnic on a fresh, clean tablecloth. Blankets were dragged from the back of the Shogun, (Daniel drove a Rover not suitable for today’s outing and in any case his income had not yet reached the level of Henry’s and he could not afford to maintain a second vehicle) and these were placed on the ground. Everyone sat around eating, laughing and drinking – the grownups had wine – Thomas and Zack had cold, fizzy drinks from the cool box.
Lunch then being over, out of sight they had a mild spitting contest, but laughed too much to finish with a certain winner. Occasionally they ran idly round and round the flattened circles of grass the Shogun’s tyres had made, sometimes bending to feel with their fingers, the imprints that stuck up like small, compacted sculptures.
Later, when conversation became more muted and Jenny sat with her head lying on Henry’s chest, his back resting against a short, fat outcrop of rock that fit so comfortably into his spine he swore it had been handcrafted, eyes began to close. Margaret lay full length on her stomach, a large hat over the back of her neck, the breeze lightly lifting and dropping the long skirt she wore. Thomas tried to look at her legs but the skirt never lifted high enough. Zack contented himself with surreptiously draining the dregs of any unattended wineglass and boasted to Thomas the he definitely knew now what it was like to be grownup. Thomas didn’t much like the taste of alcohol – it made his head feel stuffy, but he didn’t say this to Zack.
Daniel wandered around the perimeter of the picnic area, sometimes tapping the framework of the house with an air of expertise; then drifting back to make the odd comment in Henry’s ear. Henry always nodded in acquiescence at whatever Daniel said, his short, brown curls bobbing like small toffee apples, his smooth round face the essence of calm and joviality.
Daniel’s sallow, angular face and dark eyes never flashed so animatedly as when explaining what would be best for someone else to do. It was the basis for the long friendship that he and Henry had had from the time before their marriages and had never changed. He always told Henry what was best; Henry always agreed. Of course, it mattered not one iota whether Henry actually did what Daniel said. The mere act of agreeing satisfied Daniel and Henry’s nature was such that he liked to please people. This was one of the main reasons he had been so successful in his business affairs but it was a character trait of not much use to Jenny who was of a nervous, fluttery disposition and needed someone who could make decisions for her. It accounted for the two tiny frown lines that constantly marred the surface of her very fine, porcelain fragile prettiness.
But today, there were no more decisions to be made.
Daniel, tiring of his exertions lumped a blanket under his head, fidgeted with it as a cat might to settle a bed more to its liking and, stretching out full length, his long, thin, spidery legs just making contact with the side of Margaret’s rump, closed his eyes.
From time to time one of them would venture a remark but wine and sun had taken their toll and the most an utterance provoked in return was a sort of grunt that signified the offerer was still awake but didn’t feel up to too much effort.
Nobody minded as the sun rose higher and the breeze grew lighter, until silence descended punctuated only by the odd snore from Daniel who suffered with his adenoids due entirely Margaret said, to his restless, energetic personality.
Thomas and Zack picking on mangled sandwiches and crumbling Madeira cake for the sake of it, looked at each other in delight.
‘They’re asleep’ Zack whispered ‘shall we go?’
Thomas nodded, stuffing his pockets with a crumpled mixture of crisps and peanuts topped off with a few sugared almonds. He could never understand the fuss people made about mixing food up together in a pocket. After all it kept it safe and it all went down the same way didn’t it?
Zack, ever more practical, grabbed a can of soft drink and two bars of chocolate, one already partially consumed, the other pristine in its wrapper.
They crept silently towards the long, shiny grass, fingers to lips, shushing each other non-stop. When they reached the edge, Thomas gave a gasp, feeling a slight clench in his chest. His head turned of its own volition and he drank in, much as a camera might, the sight of his parents in their somnolent position. So still they were. All of them. So still.
‘Like a painting’ he thought confusedly, the sun beating hot on his head and he took a half step hack towards them as if to reassure himself that they were real.
A furious tug on his sleeve rocked him where he stood, spinning him off balance.
‘Come on’ hissed Zack furiously ‘ do you want them to wake up and stop us?’
Thomas opened his mouth and for one curious moment thought he might be going to say ‘yes’ but he promptly shut it as a wasp flew near and he dropped to his knees under Zack’s insistent pull.
The grass waved over his head.
He didn’t think the grass had been that long.
Sharp spikes of its long green stems pricked and dragged at his face and ears, causing him to scratch furiously and once to blink back a tear as his eye was caught by a lashing blade. Zack seemed not to notice or mind and was at least four feet in front of him. Thomas felt a little shaky and, coming to his knees, tried to peer ahead.
The grass came to the tip of his forehead and all he could see was the blue of the sky with white, fluffy clouds that seemed to be scudding past at an alarming rate. Their speed made him feel dizzy, his head spinning like it had when he had fainted once the year he’d had very bad ‘flu.’ It was so long ago now he couldn’t remember; at least it seemed like a long time ago.
Zack’s voice, filled with impatience, penetrated his ears.
‘Are you never going to come? Get a move on.’
Obediently, Thomas dropped to his belly and began to crawl. He could feel the dry dirt invading the gaps between his shirt and the buttons, drifting and collecting where the waistband of his trousers hugged his flesh too tightly.
The grass was taller now, thicker and more difficult to push through, the texture feeling stronger and harsher. He could just make out the ends of Zack’s feet as he crawled. Zack didn’t seem to mind the dirt and the prickles. Zack was thinner and longer. It was easier for him to move more quickly Thomas thought with a flash of resentment, conscious of the belt of just slightly too much flesh he was carrying all over his small body.
Nobody said he was fat exactly but he knew he was heading that way. He stuffed a few shards of crisps into his mouth for comfort enjoying the acrid contrast of peanut and potato mixed with the sugary edge from the almonds.
He tumbled with a lurch, head over heels, letting out a muffled squawk of fright. His head connected with a sharp object and tears spurted involuntarily from his eyes. He could hear Zack laughing. The breath had squooshed out of his stomach and he lay with his face in some dark, squishy substance that felt damp. A sort of mud he guessed, raising himself heavily to a sitting position.
He could see he was in a small hollow, maybe even the bed of a tiny stream that circled the perimeter of the grass. Tiny pools of water glinted balefully in spots as if annoyed at being disturbed. The sides of the hollow were dank and slippery, tough grass hanging from each bank, meeting in the middle as if to deliberately hide the pit and trap any unwary animal or creature. Thomas felt angry.
‘You didn’t tell me’ he yelled accusingly, rubbing his head fiercely.
Zack just laughed.
‘You’re such a baby. You just gotta keep your eyes open out here in the wild. Come on.’
Thomas scrabbled out as quickly as he could, feeling the mud clinging damply to the sides of his legs. It made him shiver. He didn’t actually like being dirty but of course he never told Zack that.
The line of the wood was very close.
Zack sat at the bottom of some sort of tree with clouded green upright leaves. Thomas thought it was a bit like a Christmas tree but it didn’t look quite the same – this was darker, stiffer, upright like a soldier. He flung himself down beside Zack panting, and pinched him hard on the sensitive part of flesh that ran between the ribcage and waist. Zack yelped satisfyingly and Thomas leaned back against the tree. Zack made no move to retaliate. Their code was simple and complex, unspoken but known and they both abided by it.
Zack opened the can of drink, the sound echoing sharply, spurting the contents on his shirt. He dabbled his fingers in the beaded drops, stroking them over his brow and cheeks. They shared the can, drinking contently, eating all of the opened chocolate bar, Zack insisting on conserving the other ‘for later.’
The shade crept to the edge of their toes. The sun streaming on the long grass seemed in another country from where they sat, cool air penetrating the backs of their necks.
Zack shivered and sprang to his feet.
‘Come on, let’s go in the wood, we’ve got to see it all.’
Thomas fidgeted himself up the trunk of the tree, feeling the bark scrape in a delicious way over the scratchy irritations on his back. As he propped his arms to push his body up, he gave an involuntary ‘Uggh’ of disgust, hastily snatching his right hand up in the air.
‘What is it?’ Zack queried, bending to look at the dry, leaf-coated ground.
Thomas said nothing, merely eyed the wet, viscous bundle of fur and blood, furiously rubbing his hand on a dry patch of earth. Zack knelt down to examine the discovery. Thomas surreptiously popped a fuzzy, sugared almond into his mouth, sucking on it heartily, comforted by the drift of sweetness down his throat.
‘I say’ said Zack excitedly ‘it’s a rabbit but look’ holding aloft the stiff, miserable carcase, ‘it’s been hollowed out. Look. Look.’
Thomas didn’t want to look. What he really wanted to do was be sick but he forced himself to look straight at the body. It would never do to give Zack the chance to crow.
The slender underbelly of the rabbit had been slit from its chin to the base of its tail. Even through half closed eyes Thomas could see that no insides remained.
‘Just the shell’ he thought in horror ‘as if they only wanted what was inside.’
‘What kind of animal would do that?’ he asked ‘Just take the insides and leave the rest?’
‘Don’t know’ said Zack delightedly ‘but its cool isn’t it?’
Zack stood, swinging the corpse round and round by the ears clutched in his fingers, mumbling and cheering ‘yeaah, yeaah, yeaah’ triumphantly and then loosening his hold, sent it winging over the ditch to land somewhere unseen with a muted thump in the long grass.
Thomas stood upright, craning on tiptoe to see over the waving green. He knew Zack was some three inches taller than him as they constantly measured each other in a frantic race to see who would grow up first. It seemed to him that Zack had all the advantages.
He strained even harder squinting his eyes and narrowing the lids to make out where his parents lay on the blanket covering the rough sedge, his heart thumping madly when he thought they were nowhere to be seen.
There! There they were. How dim and distant they seemed. How small. Like the tiny wax dolls he had once seen on a school trip to a museum. He could swear they hadn’t moved since his glimpse of them before entering the green tangle. He waved. Once, twice, three times but there was no response. No one waved back. They must all be sound asleep.
He pulled on his shirt wrenching it out of his trousers and reluctantly he turned away, his eye lingering last on what he told himself was the gently waving blonde hair of his mother.
Zack plunged helter-skelter into the wood, laughing and whooping with a mad abandon while Thomas followed more slowly.
The trees were very close together, pulling darkness in. ‘Almost like twilight’ Thomas thought, his breath catching slightly in his throat. He didn’t like twilight much. Night was okay. Things were sharply defined in the blackness of night and the harsh light of electricity, but the shadowy, streaked greyness of twilight always caused him unease. He often fancied he saw things flit and move on the edge of his vision.
He sneezed abruptly.
It sounded very loud in the hushed silence of the wood and he looked around guiltily. He kept his legs close together, taking small strides, trying to huddle into himself. He knew he had decided he didn’t like the wood but he wouldn’t say this out loud. It might make something angry. He closed his mind altogether to the thought of what that something might be and concentrated on following Zack who seemed to be getting further and further ahead, his voice drifting back every so often with a booming hollowness that caused little spurts of panic to pierce his stomach when he heard it – the same kind of sensation he got deep in his belly when he had to go to the toilet.
Something cracked in the undergrowth beside him and he spun round hurriedly but could see nothing. His breath came heavily. He stood tense, every nerve keenly alert but no sound broke the still air. He began cautiously, to ease forward, when he heard the crack again. Louder and nearer. His heart leapt and a small cawing sound came out of his mouth that made him want to laugh when he heard it only he was too afraid.
Zack had disappeared from view and the wood closed in around him. The trees seemed taller: only the barest patch of blue could be seen. He focused his eyes on it desperately in an effort to reassure himself that the world was still normal.
A squelching, lurching sound came to the left of him and his vision searched madly from leaf to leaf and tree to tree. Nothing moved, nothing stirred. Still the squelching and sucking persisted and he was sure he could hear a low rumbling like the tiny roll of distant thunder.
The breath left his body in one great whoosh and his legs, feeling like rubber and totally out of his control, took him of their own accord at full speed, deeper and deeper into the trees. Branches whipped and grabbed at him viciously as he passed, leaving dirty trails on his arms and legs, sometimes mingled with the thin, pale red of his blood from the tiny slits they made on his body.
He stopped bolt upright in the middle of a clearing, so round he thought someone must have been in with tools and carved it out. But he could see no sign of cutting or debris. Just a round circle. ‘As if the trees just stopped of their own accord’ his conscious mind barely registered.
His voice came out reedy, quivering with fright and exhaustion, as if a great weight pressed on his chest and lungs.
‘Zack, Zack where are you? Don’t kid around.’
As he waited for a reply he noticed in the middle of the clearing, a churned up mess of dark, sticky mud, great clumps of it lying around as if something, or someone, had thrown it haphazardly, not caring where it fell. He approached dazedly hoping to gain some idea of the direction Zack had gone in. Kneeling down he peered at the huge mound.
Then he was sick.
Violently and completely sick until nothing was left in his stomach and only the tang of twice tasted crisps and peanuts faintly washed his mouth.
He stared uncomprehendingly at the mess in front of him.
Bones, bones. Everywhere bones. Huge bones; little bones, bones still with sickly shreds of red meat attached, fat globules gleaming and glistening like winking eyes. He could not tell if they were animal bones or, dare he even allow it to surface, human ones. Certainly he had never seen animals that he could match to some of the sizes in view. And all the time – everywhere – red, red mud. He knew without doubt what had coloured this mud red. The sweet stench, mixed with an iron tang, filling his nostrils was one that, even at his age, he could recognise. Fear gripped his belly and he mumbled unaware ‘No, no, no’ over and over again like an incantation.
A sudden flurry and dashing drew his eye to the left of the circle and the foliage exposed to his view lashed and tumbled as in a gale without ever revealing the cause. He neither moved nor breathed as he watched the progress pass the circle and proceed ahead of it. He was only grateful it had gone. He forced himself upright and raised a trembling hand to wipe his brow. Sweat ran down his entire body and he felt he must be melting yet all the time he was cold, cold, cold.
He had taken one hesitant pace, foot still in midair, when a scream began that rent the silence like the crack of a gunshot. Keening and shrilling, high pitched it maintained a solid note of unbearable pain and terror that not even his hands pressed firmly over his ears could blot out. The scream tapered and died to a tormented squeal and he thought he caught the remnants of a last anguished ‘Mummy’ that died as it was born.
A silence too terrible to bear now filled the air, pressing in on him with a presence that was more horrible than the scream.
‘Zack’ he whispered, knowing there would be no answer.
Up ahead he heard the swish of trees bending and parting beneath a superior weight, powerful and not to be denied its path. The slashing and squelching he had heard earlier seemed now to shout in his ears beneath the susurration of the leaves and panic enveloped him.
Trees, just beyond the horizon of his vision began to bend and sway and he could hear the thump, thump, thump of the load that was carried and, sickeningly, he pictured Zack’s head and legs banging and breaking, snapping and splintering, white bone showing through red meat as whatever possessed his body bore it ever onward to its dining place, heedless of any damage.
The sure knowledge that Zack would no longer feel any of that damage did nothing to aid the images in his mind.
One thing penetrated his brain.
He stood squarely in the middle of the feasting area and, mewling with terror, he forced his legs to turn, back the way he had come. The circle almost defeated him disoriented as he was with fear, when his eyes lit on the broken branch of the tree he had last been entangled with when entering the clearing.
He scrabbled and ran towards it, always at his back the relentless rushing coming closer like the breath of a giant. He tore through the undergrowth muttering aloud like a prayer ‘Zack, Zack, Zack.’
One tiny part of his brain he would later recognise to be selfish, sobbed in abject relief that Zack and not he, had been the one to be caught.
He staggered out of the tree line and leapt the ditch in a single jump. The grass received him with a soft collapsing that welcomed him like his mother’s arms.
He thought he heard behind him the snarl of a discontented loser and, momentarily, he panted ‘yeaah, yeaah, yeaah’ until he remembered that, this time, there would be no answering echo.
He was afraid to stand and crawled on his belly through the limp, crushed flatness, traversing the original path his and Zack’s limbs had made, feeling the sweat and itch of a million, maddening unknown irritants. His trousers had ripped and torn in his flight and his shirt had lost most of its buttons. He did not think his mother would care.
He crawled his way to the edge of the grass and lay there, half in, half out crying. He no longer cared who saw or heard him. When he had cried for some time he began to wonder why no one had come to enquire what was wrong and he raised his head, snuffling and wiping his nose and eyes with the back of his hand.
Tears still shimmered in his vision and he blinked these away rapidly.
The sun was dying in the distance behind the house. The house itself cast a long, elongated shadow over the better part of the rough cut grass that passed for a lawn. All was bare and stark.
His eyes roamed desperately.
There was no sign of his parents, the picnic – the blankets. Not even Daniel or Margaret stood or sat in his view. Perhaps they had gone inside. But that could not be. Where the Shogun had stood the grass was now upright unflattened, fresh and unmarked. No tyre tracks pressed and swirled themselves into the circles he and Zack had so lazily ran in; no stiff, upright impressions they had tracked with their curious, questing fingers stood at attention.
His world spun, shattering into hot, blinding fragments.
Behind him, he could hear the rushing of the parting grass.