The Darkest Part of the Woods
By Campbell, Ramsey
Tor Books Copyright © 2004 Campbell, Ramsey
All right reserved.
I The Mound in the Dark
HEATHER was scanning into the computer a book that smelled of all its centuries when Randall answered the phone. She looked up to find him holding a finger to his faint smile as if hushing himself until she was ready for him. His bushy brows were raised high, and as their gazes met, his wide pale blue eyes gave in to a blink. "An American lady is asking for you," he said.
She picked up the flat almost weightless receiver from his amiably strewn desk. "Heather Price."
Her mother's voice sounded both determined and exhausted. "What's happened?" Heather said.
"Your father's out. Six of them have gone into the woods." Her phone demonstrated its mobility with an outburst of vicious static and subtracted a few syllables from "I'm driving over there now."
"Do you want me to as well?"
"I wish you would. The more of us there are--" The completion of her thought was lost in a chorus of static, after which a tattered version of her voice said "We'll find each other."
"I have to leave early," Heather told Randall, who was gripping his lowered chin and rubbing it with a thumb while he eyed a fluorescent tube that went some way towards bringing the rafters up to date. When his head lifted as his gaze descended, unsure how concerned it was entitled to look, she said "I have to leave now. Could you scan those last few pagesfor me?"
"I'll be more than glad."
She squeezed his surprised arm with both hands on the way to grabbing her handbag and coat from the stand behind her desk. She let herself out of the gate in the stout oaken counter and hurried between the massive tables surrounded by students at books and computer terminals. Three lecturers discussing cricket passed her abreast in the echoing vaulted sandstone corridor before she ran out of the towering front doors of the university, under an arch two feet thick, to the car park.
The air was edged with a late October chill. As she hastened to her car, past saplings crystalline with spiders' beaded webs, she felt as if the thinnest glaze of ice were fitting itself to her cheeks and forehead. The long lofty Gothic facade and its high pointed windows had acquired a glitter reminiscent of frost. When she started her Civic, the engine produced a cloud worthy of any of the bonfires due next week.
The main streets of Brichester were already clogged with traffic. She was wishing she had headed for the motorway by the time she reached the foot of Mercy Hill. As she drove up through its ribs of terraced streets, past the hospital that overlooked a graveyard, she remembered how her father used to drive her and Sylvia to the top when they were little--how he'd urged them to see as far as they could. The memory made her release a long slow breath that blurred the wind screen, unless the blurring was in her eyes. A mist was coating the lights of Brichester with luminous fur, while to the west, beyond the river Severn reddened by a low gigantic sun, Wales glimmered like a scattering of white-hot ash. To the east the motorway shone white and red, and at the eastern limit of her vision the Cotswold hills were a mass of humps in assorted shades of grey. Ahead to the north she saw a brownish mass that looked small enough to grasp with one hand. She drove faster towards it and the new bypass.
She heard lorries before the unkempt hedges of the old Goodmanswood road let her see them. As soon as she sped onto the bypass, vehicles big enough for families to inhabit blocked her view. At least they were no longer using Goodmanswood as a route between the motorway and Sharpness on the Severn, but they prevented her from seeing the woods until she was almost alongside. Without warning the lorry in front of her veered into the right-hand lane, causing another behemoth to gasp and bray, and she saw the woods stretching ahead to the left of the road, their leaves all the colours of old paper, shiny as scales in the gathering dimness. As the lorries roared onward, past a new roadsign that had acquired a greenish tinge, she swung her car into a lay-by. She fished her flashlight from behind her seat and ducked out of the car.
The clamour of traffic blotted out any sounds among the trees. There was movement in the woods, but none of it was alive. Whenever headlights swung around the curve beyond the lay-by, rank after rank of trees flared up, as lattices of shadow trawled the dimness. She could hardly get lost in less than a square mile of woods when the bypass was making so much noise, but she hoped that wouldn't cover up any sounds of her family. She stepped off the concrete of the lay-by onto soft slippery leaf-strewn earth.
Beam after headlight beam solidified by mist preceded her between the trees. Her shadow kept springing up in front of her, caged by tree-trunks, while unexpectedly chill shadows of trees glided over her back. Before long the beams fell short of her, but she didn't need to use the flashlight yet; she had only to head for the sunset that tinged the highest leaves crimson as though the world was yielding up blood to the sky. Perhaps the dimmest stretch of the headlights was still visible beyond her, producing an impression of thin movements that of dodged between the trees. The traffic noise was muffled now, but a backward glance showed her a shuttling of lights. "Mother?" she tried calling, and raised her voice. "Anyone?"
She thought she heard a distant pair of syllables respond from the direction of the sinking glow. She followed as straight a route as she could towards it through the wooden maze, around humps of scaly earth. Moist air that tasted of fog and decay caught in her throat as she called "If you can hear me, give a shout" and switched the flashlight on.
She hoped it would show where she was. While its beam illuminated her way, it persisted in starting thin shapes out of concealment behind the trees, the kind of sight she could imagine troubling her as a child. She tried standing still and listening for sounds other than the drip of condensation around her in the dimness. She could no longer hear the bypass. "Where are you?" she called, because she felt observed.
So Margo was the watcher, wherever she was. Unsure what she could see ahead, Heather switched the flashlight off. The underbelly of the sky lurched at her, lowering itself on countless legs--at least, that was how it might have seemed to her before she'd grown up. She narrowed her eyes to make them work. Just close enough for her to believe the spectacle was real, trees glowed in the midst of the crowded dimness. "Is the light you?" she shouted.
Of course, the search had found its object, and the glow was of flashlights. As she followed her light towards it, a multitude of thin glistening shapes stepped out from behind their companions and shadows hitched themselves across the chaos of fallen leaves. She'd hurried some hundreds of yards before she was certain she could see lights converging on her goal. Another few strides and she was able to make out a uniformed nurse from the Arbour. He reached the clearing in the middle of the woods as she did.
The clearing was perhaps a hundred yards wide. Her father and five other people were posed on a ring of bricks far too low to be described as a wall. It took Heather a moment to recognise it from her childhood. The six appeared to be precisely equidistant on it, and staring at the shallow mound it encircled. They looked transfixed by the convergence of lights that united their shadows like a huge six-legged insect on the mound.
Her mother stood just outside the ring of bricks, directly in front of Heather's father, hugging herself with her arms folded over the artist's apron she wore in the studio. Her small face was more wrinkled than ever around lips pursed pale and greenish eyes that might have been determined not to blink until he acknowledged her. "I've just this instant got here," she told Heather, apparently to explain her lack of effect, and redoubled her frown at him. "Come off there, Lennox. You're working everyone up."
When this produced no result she turned her little body but not her head towards their daughter. "Look who's here. Look, she's here to help take you back. Look."
"Yes, do come with us, dad. You don't want to stay out here when it's getting dark."
His gaze didn't shift from the mound. He was clasping his left wrist with his right hand behind his back as if recalling how it felt to be a professor. As he leaned forward an inch into a flashlight beam, the furrows etched across his wide forehead and down his long loose face appeared to deepen while his brows and shock of hair grew even whiter. Either he'd neglected to comb his hair or the woods had dishevelled it, and Heather couldn't tell how much of their brightness his large blue eyes owed to a resolution not to look confused. She was swallowing a sudden taste of grief when he muttered "Where's the other?"
"I'm not understanding you, Lennox."
"The one who came last. Sister Twig."
"Are you talking about Sylvia? She's somewhere in America. It was Heather who stayed, and you won't even look at her."
"It's all right, mummy. I understand why dad wants Sylvia," Heather was quick to say. "Only why are you here, dad? You don't need to come here any more."
His gaze drifted towards her and grew unexpectedly sad. She wasn't sure he was responding to her until he said "Why are any of us, Heather?"
"I can't say," she admitted, hoping fiercely that he'd reverted to his old self. "Can you?"
"Didn't you hear?"
A flashlight must have shifted, which was why the trees beyond him appeared to edge attentively forward. "Hear what?" Margo demanded impatiently. "You're the lecturer."
He clapped his hands, a sound that rattled through the woods. With delight or incredulity he declared "They never heard."
Heather made herself relax before her innards tightened too much. All of his fellow patients had burst out laughing--a woman whose fingers were clasped prayerfully together so hard they gleamed white, a man apparently unable to prevent his head from ducking from side to side, a woman digging her fingertips into her cheeks as though to support her protuberant eyes, a man whose fists had spent minutes in beginning to open towards the mound, another poised in a crouch that seemed on the point of dropping him to his knees. Four male nurses from the Arbour who had been attempting to persuade them off the bricks fell silent as the five turned just their heads to Lennox. He glanced at each of them, a smile trembling on his broad thick lips. "Maybe," he said at last, "his mouth's full."
Not all of his companions were happy to greet this with laughter, but the woman with clasped hands and the crouched man made up for the rest. "Well, okay," Lennox said when they eventually subsided. "We may as well go."
He gestured to include Heather and Margo and the nurses in his invitation as he stepped off the bricks. He'd barely started across the clearing when the other patients followed him. "Fair enough, that's the way," Heather heard a nurse murmur to his colleagues. "Just stay close."
She saw the flashlight beams jerk among the trees, casting a net of shadows over Lennox and his followers. "Thanks, Heather," Margo said and gave her a shaky hug. "I don't know what I'd do without you."
"You'd do pretty amazingly," Heather assured her, "as if that's news to anyone."
Margo kept hold of her. "My car's at the Arbour. Shall I drive you back to yours?"
"You don't want to be walking alone in the woods now it's dark," Heather understood aloud. As they reached the edge of the clearing she took Margo's arm and glanced back. She might have turned her flashlight beam that way if she had been by herself. Instead she shone it forward, illuminating her mother's route, and saw how the nurses appeared to be using their lights to herd the patients between the scaly columns in the dark. There was nothing behind her that she hadn't already seen, she reflected. Three decades must have exposed more of the ring of bricks, that was all. When she and Sylvia were children they had called it the path that led to itself.
Copyright 2002 by Ramsey Campbell Continues...
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