The forest floor was clean of anything but shed pine needles, a thick layer of beige and brown as solid as any carpet. The spruce trees had been planted decades ago, in strict lines standing guard over the old fields like soldiers at attention. If the landowner had cared, the forest should have been groomed by now, men with clearing saws should have descended to remove the trees that grew stunted and pale, to thin the herd. But Magnusson, the owner of Odinsteed Farm had died five years ago, and now the land was tied up in a battle between cousins, arguing about acres and buildings. Meanwhile, the spruces waited, huddled together, stretching for the skies. Nothing but trees grew on the field, the thick layer of pine needles choking even grass. But every autumn, mushrooms would work their way through the surface, making the nascent spruce forest a haven for mushroom hunters.
Signe had not heard of Odinsteed Farm until this summer when a friend in her sewing circle had told her of the place, and of the two full baskets of chanterelles she had walked away with last season. Nobody lived there anymore, her friend had explained, so nobody was picking them off early. This year however, her arthritis was acting up so she couldn’t walk without her stroller, let alone go push through thickets. Signe might be retired but still had full use of her legs. And so, as august came about, she went there; took her car out on the narrow country roads, up the gravel path to the outskirts of the deserted farm and to the forests.
'This can't be right', she told herself as she stood in front of the wall of spruces, baskets clutched tightly in her hands. 'This is not how a forest is supposed to look.'
Once she supposed the fields would have been filled with oats or potatoes, gently circling the old cairns and barrows that dotted the landscape. Some dated back to the age of the Vikings; others were calculated to be far older. You could almost feel the age of the landscape that surrounded her, heavy with importance now forgotten. It had been fertile farmland for millennia, but now there were just spruces, tall and foreboding, branches locking together keeping out both light and people.
"Never mind the stone fence," her friend had said. "Just crawl over it, and be mindful of the branches. The ones further in are dead and break easily. Just…" and here her voice had hesitated, her knitting needles pausing. "… don’t get spooked. Things can be a bit… odd in there." Then the needles had resumed and they had all laughed about what could be considered odd about a forest.
Standing here, Signe knew exactly what her friend had meant. This forest was like nothing she had seen before. The stones that lined the edge were the remains of an old fence, barely to her knees by now, collapsed by roots and frost. It wasn’t hard to crawl over, her sturdy corduroy pants now stained with moss. And just as promised, the branches grew thickest near the light, once inside things opened up. A bit.
It was like a church in there, a cathedral for dwarves with pillars of bristly tree-trunks. The branches were interwoven and thick at the top, but further down they were dead twigs, breaking as easily as old sticks when she pushed against them. If she stood straight she could not see a thing, her head in a cloud of dry pines, but if she hunched she could press through the twigs, feeling them snap as she pushed forward. And if she knelt down to crawl, she could see forever along the open forest floor, spotting the telltale sign of yellow against the brown. Chanterelles. The tales had been true.
An hour later, Signe was covered in sweat, with her two baskets nearly filled. Despite thick clothes her arms were scratched raw, her knees sore from crawling, and she had bleeding sores on her face where broken twigs as sharp as daggers had poked her. Things had become a bit easier once she had spotted the paths. Honestly she wasn’t sure if paths were the right term for them, there were no tracks on the ground that the pine needles revealed, but the branches above had been broken, leaving only short stumps on the trunks. She could walk upright there, wondering if what she was seeing was the legacy of other mushroom hunters, each forcing themselves through the maze of trees following the path of least resistance. Like explorers cutting through the rainforest with machetes. Maybe. Maybe not. It didn’t matter anyway, the paths just made her life easier.
'It is too bad really,' she thought to herself. This could have been a healthy forest if people had properly cared for it, but now it was growing twisted. Stunted. She had spotted what might be a cairn in the distance, now deformed and nearly collapsed by the encroaching trees. That was probably a crime, you were supposed to take care of ancient burial sites if you had them on your lands, but she supposed that if they could not even be bothered to care for the forest that would make them money, they would downright ignore things that just were in the way.
For a little while there she lamented the lack of respect the younger generations had for their heritage, then let out a sigh and continued her search.
There was a shadow among the trees.
Signe paused, her breath held, her heart racing. The fear that had struck her was as surprising as the movement she had spotted, an archaic terror that held her fast, immobile. Something was wrong here, her reptile brain screamed at her. Something was wrong and she should not move and she should not breathe and maybe it would go away.
The shadows were just shadows. She knew this, she was no stranger to forests, in the past she had scared off elks and been chased by cows. When the sun went down and she had mistimed her walk back, she had shuffled through unfamiliar woods, until her little car came into sight. Signe might be old, but she was capable and she most certainly wasn’t prone to imagining things.
Dry branches cracked like knotholes in a fire, and the shadow in the corner of her eye grew dim, then distant. Departing. She dared to breathe again, turning around slowly. The cracking sounds continued; she was not alone here anymore. There was something in here with her, something huge.
Something that had made those paths.
What was wandering this artificial shadow of a forest? Very gently she put the baskets down, and then knelt so she could peek under the branches. She fully expected to see nothing, at the most a flash of elk or deer, or maybe an errant cow that had wandered into the field. Maybe even a wild boar, or more chanterelles. What she had not expected were the legs.
'Those are legs,’ her brain told her, as if she needed verbal guidance to understand what she saw. In the dim light under the trees she saw thin columns of grey, like spindly elephant legs but too many of them, bending in all the wrong ways. She closed her eyes, decided that this was not happening, and then opened them again. The legs had moved. Step by step, the joints bending this way and that, the unseen body above lurching through the dry branches. Four… five… no, eight of them. Were there hooves? Claws? Tendrils? She could not see and she didn’t want to. Her mind told her to unsee this as soon as possible, to pretend that it had been something else.
She stood up so fast her vision swam, surrounded by trees once more. It felt like when she was hiding under the covers as a child, with her flashlight lit as one of the frequent storms had torn the power lines. Under the covers she saw nothing but warm light, and bunnies jumping over soft cotton sheets. But outside… outside she knew there was a dark room where anything could lurk. She would lie there, listening to branches beating against the window until she was convinced that there indeed was something out there, something moving, shuffling, just waiting for her to reveal herself. It was absurd, the notion that the covers might be a shield, the mind of a little girl guarding herself from the unseen with a thin wall of cloth.
Like now. As long as she stood up she couldn’t see the legs, couldn’t see the way they moved (all wrong her mind screamed at her, too many), couldn’t see if they came closer or departed. She could pretend that nothing was wrong, and the snapped branches were just the wind playing, and it was impossible to pinpoint how far away it was anyway. She should go. She should leave her baskets and go. Now. NOW, her mind yelled at her, and she moved. Pushed through branches and twigs, heedlessly forcing herself through the trees in panic. She couldn’t hear any other cracking above the sound of her own racket, and she knew she was panicking and that this was not smart but knowing was one thing and doing was another.
'You're panicking,' she told herself, clinging to the branches like arms that could support her. 'Stop. This is silly; there is nothing there, stop before you put an eye out.'
She stopped; breathing heavily, heart hammering as she wanted to continue her flight. She wasn’t hearing snapped twigs anymore, she wasn’t hearing anything but her heart and her breathing and she tried to calm that down. Held her breath a moment, forcing herself to let it out slowly.
The heavy breathing continued. Behind her.
Signe bit her tongue so hard it bled, slowly sinking down to her knees, a hand over her mouth to keep her from screaming as she turned around.
The legs were there, all eight of them, and closer now. Close enough to see what seemed to be hooves, but soft, squishy, like the suction pads of snails. The greyish skin moved and bulged, no fur but a leathery, wrinkly surface, cracks revealing see-through innards. The joints seemed to be shifting in place, bending this way and that, connecting to the shadowy barrel of a body above. It stood still, then shifted, and she heard the snorted breathing again, like bellows sucking foam. ‘This is wrong,’ her brain reminded, her, she was seeing things not meant for her eyes. A muzzle descended, connected to an angular, horrible, eyeless head, and Signe could see grey nostrils widening, sniffing the air.
She held her breath. Did not move. The mouth of the beast opened, jaw nearly unhinged like on a deep-sea fish, and she could see yellow teeth, like ivory daggers. A pale tongue moved in and out as if it tasted the air, eerily snake- and slug-like both. Then it snorted and turned, swaying through the broken trees. Back towards the cairn.
Signe remained on her knees, watching as the monstrous horse-thing departed. Her mind was going blank, little flashes of light, like pictures cut from a movie reel. She remembered sitting in her grandmother’s kitchen, learning the old working songs.
remember when you reap
to leave a sheaf of wheat
for odin’s horse to eat
or geld your debt with meat
How had Magnusson died? She didn’t know but she had a horrible vision of the horse-thing lumbering up to the lonely farm from the broken cairn, squeezing through the door to devour the man whole. It was August right now. Harvest time. No wheat grew on these fields anymore, no sheaves put out to appease powers nobody remembered or understood.
She had to get out of here.
As soon as she could make her body move.