“Don’t go down in the woods.” The first rule. The most important rule. Spoken every single summer, the moment my clothes were out of my suitcase and I was firmly entrenched in the attic bedroom at my grandparent’s house in the country. My grandfather always delivered that line with the grim, narrow look that said plainly he expected me to disobey and was already planning my punishment, even though I never broke that rule. Maybe I thought about it, but I didn’t do it. First, because I was only a little girl when Dad started leaving me at the farm during the summer – about the same time Mom sent the divorce papers and made it clear she had no further interest in either one of us – and, later, because I simply wasn’t the sort to disobey.
I sometimes had nightmares about those woods when I was younger. I dreamed of wolves and gingerbread houses. I dreamed of witches and ghosts and monsters that would eat me from the toes up. I would wake up screaming for the first week I was there, certain that something was creeping up out of the woods to come and snatch me away. As I grew up, the nightmares mostly vanished, but the sense of foreboding I got when looking at those woods did not.
There was plenty to do on the farm without breaking Grandpa’s rule about the woods. There were hay bales to climb and horses to ride. There was a swimming hole and a little movie theater in town. I didn’t have any friends there, but that was okay; I had plenty of books and the local library was only a bike ride away. Summer was full of wonderful things without ever considering what was off limits. Anyway. The woods were dense and dark and even from a distance, seemed to promise all sorts of unpleasant things, like ticks and poisonous snakes. So staying out wasn’t exactly a challenge.
“Don’t go down in the woods.” My grandfather’s warning, spoken over pancakes and eggs, used as a good morning, have fun, and goodbye when he needed to go somewhere without me got to where it almost felt like a joke. Or would have, if he didn’t always look so serious about it. Summer after summer, year after year, he tolled like the bell in a clock tower, telling me over and over again, ignoring my frowns and my irritated sighs, pretending not to notice when I’d roll my eyes or protest how well I knew the rule.
And what reason did I have not to listen? I wasn’t a woodsy girl and, despite my love of fantasy adventure books, I felt no desire to go chasing one of my own. Certainly, I’d learned more than one lesson from my books. Refusing to listen to your elders was rarely worth the trouble it caused. I would mention that to Grandpa, but it never stopped him from repeating that rule, always in the same dark, warning tone. Whenever I’d complain to Grandma about his distrust, she’d only shake her head. “He’s got his reasons,” she’d say.
And then came that July day. The heat hung close and heavy. The humidity was a thick haze around my ankles. My grandparents left for town early that morning and, as the heat grew, I knew I wouldn’t see them until evening; Grandpa’s rattling, two toned blue farm truck had a habit of stalling out on really hot days, so they would stay in town until the temperatures got back below ninety.
“Don’t go down to the woods,” Grandpa had warned when I’d stumbled down the stairs for breakfast. Then they were gone and I was left to my own devices. Which mostly meant lounging on the couch reading.
My grandparents didn’t have any air conditioning, not even one of those heavy, ugly box types for the window. By noon, the ceiling fans were doing little more than pushing the humid, hot air around the room and I was pouring sweat. I shuffled out to the porch swing, then, finally, to the hammock at the back of the house, strung between two oaks that kept it well shaded every hour of the day. I did not often go there, despite the deep shade and the way it always seemed about five degrees cooler than anywhere else.
The woods were perfectly visible at the bottom of the lawn, which swept down, perfectly trimmed, to the edge of the trees. The forest was a long, cool shadow that might have been inviting, if not for the creepy sense of being watched I always got when I was that close to it. I was always certain that it was a subconscious reaction to my grandfather’s frequent warning; the older I got, the stranger it became; he’d never caught me even trying to go into the woods and I was certain he knew I wouldn’t choose to go there. Which, to me, almost seemed to say it was the woods he didn’t trust. As if the trees could somehow force me to come, if I was to let my guard down. Not that I ever did; even though I knew my fears of monsters and witches in gingerbread houses was irrational and childish, something I should have shed years before, there was still a part of me that watched those trees, always cautious. Always ready to run.
That day, though, I saw a woman. Maybe she was tall and slim, with dark hair and a way of walking that was almost like floating. I couldn’t see how old she was, though I thought she was closer to twenty-five than forty. It was difficult to tell much else from that distance. The kid, however, was a different matter.
She was small and narrow, with that knobby, bony, coltish look girls get around eight years old, when their puppy fat slides off but hasn’t yet been replaced by feminine curves. Her blond hair hung loose and windswept over her bare shoulders and down the back of her white tank top.
The woman had her by the hand and, as I watched, she turned and led the child into the woods. My neck prickled. I’d been curled up, feet tucked under me, book open in my hands. Now, I put one foot down, frozen by indecision. Don’t go down in the woods. But the little girl. And the woman with her. Didn’t they know it was off limits? And who takes a little kid exploring in woods that don’t belong to them? There were keep out signs and no hunting signs posted all along the edges, where no-one could pretend they hadn’t seen them.
I stood up and, after another moment, I started down over the lawn. With every step, I felt a little more outside myself, the way I always did when I forced myself to go against my own nature. My instincts said that kid was in trouble. My nerves were twanging like an over tightened string on a guitar. I could not, no matter how I told myself I was being silly, get rid of that sense that something was very, very wrong.
The closer I got to the woods, the slower I walked, a feeling like panic clawing at me. I didn’t want to go in. I didn’t even want to get close enough to see past the first trees. Yet I was the type of girl who couldn’t just turn around and pretend I hadn’t seen anything. I stopped outside the woods, straining to see past the over grown border. All I could see were trees. And. A teddy bear.
It was sitting in the crook of a tree. Just an ordinary little toy bear with brown fur and glass eyes. In any other setting, it would have been innocuous. Sitting there, in the crook of a tree, with Grandpa’s warning ringing in my head, it took on a much more sinister aura.
Don’t go down in the woods. I leaned forward. Today. I froze. The last word had come unbidden into my head and not in my grandfather’s voice. A sense of familiarity swept over me, but I couldn’t quite place the full line into a recognizable setting. Was it a story I’d once heard? Something on TV? I put one foot on the narrow deer track leading deeper into the brush. And then the other. The forest did not fall down on me and no wolf jumped out to devour me.
I heard what sounded like a soft, childlike sob. The small, hurt sound a kid might make when they fall down and scrape their knees. That decided me; nature lover I am not and disobedient isn’t my style, but I’m no coward and I’d never turn my back on a hurt kid. I started walking.
Teddy bears. Gray, brown, purple, pink. The first one had been in the tree, the next few were beneath one, circling it, their backs set against the trunk. Then another, sitting on a rock. Some of them were like new. Other’s looked bedraggled, as if they’d been out in the forest for some time. “Don’t go down in the woods,” I whispered, pausing to listen; I couldn’t tell where the soft, intermittent cries were coming from over the sound of my feet rushing over dead leaves. “Today.” I couldn’t swallow the word. I caught that muffled little cry again. “I’m coming,” I murmured to no-one.
I tripped into the little clearing. A thrill of horror raced through me. More teddy bears. They hung like macabre Christmas ornaments, tiny, perfect nooses around their necks. Don’t go down in the woods today. I cupped my hand over my mouth, momentarily frozen again. “You’re in for a big surprise.” I took a gasping breath as the words of the song, sung low, hushed and full of terrible promise, filled my head. It was not a ghostly voice, but a memory. Someone had sung that song to me, once, and it was slowly coming back, line by line, making me feel not just unsafe in those woods, but physically threatened. If not for the weeping, which was quickly becoming more frequent and panicked, I would have run right then. But it was a child crying. A child needed my help.
I stumbled out of the clearing and away from the teddy bears, plunging blindly through the woods. If you go down in the woods today, you better go in disguise. The soft, slow rasp of the voice in my head twisted in my gut, a shadow of a memory that had no context, that I couldn’t make myself see. And when I followed that narrow deer track around, I saw the girl, pale hair running like a river down her back, tiny face tipped up, huge eyes solemnly studying what was in front of her.
My stomach was cold, as if I’d swallowed a gallon of ice water. The little girl was silent, but the soft, whimpering cries still hung on the still, hot air around us. And one more step showed me who was crying and why. But I’d already known why, hadn’t I? It was part of the memory I didn’t know I’d had, the reason Grandpa had warned me over and over to stay away from this place.
I stared up at the girl, nailed to the plank, circled by teddy bears, their once plush fur rotting and black with mold, their dark eyes clouded by age and exposure. Blood trailed from the corners of her mouth and her hitching, torn chest was like a car still running after the key has been turned off; I could already see how empty her eyes were. Behind her was a little playhouse. It looked like it was made of gingerbread. Once upon a time, it was the perfect place to sit down and talk to stuffed animals, the perfect place for pretend.
“Today is the day the teddy bears have their picnic,” I whispered. I could look into the darkness beyond the doorway and remember a man, a handsome man with a too white smile, who had nearly had to bend double to leave the little house. And I could remember my mother. Slim, dark haired, her white dress rumpled and hanging crooked, like she’d just yanked it on over her head without making sure it was on straight. Looking at me and Daddy as if she was only a little embarrassed. Laughing at him and promising that I wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore. Only it was never me that had to worry, was it?
I looked up at the woman on the plank. She was still there, but she’d changed. Her pretty skin had turned gray and was peeling back from bone, shriveling and rotting, turning her into the witch that had haunted my nightmares for so long with her too wide grin that looked like a snarl. I could still see the horrible wounds that had let out all her life, could see the nails still driven in through the bone, hammered so deep that the bone around them had splintered. I stared into the dark pits where her eyes once had been, before he stabbed them out, and remembered the sound of her screaming. I barely felt the little girl as she threaded her fingers through mine. I wasn’t afraid; everything about her was mine, from her cornflower blue eyes to her hair, as pale as milk in the dim. I looked down at her.
“Mommy was bad,” she said quietly. “Daddy had to punish her.”
And I felt him there, behind me. The big, bad wolf that had stalked me through a thousand nightmare shadows. Only this was no dream and screaming wasn’t going to save me now. “Don’t you know what happens to nice girls down in the woods?” he murmured, his low, gravelly voice full of disappointment and terrible promise.