Out of the Woods
The road gets icy starting around January and that always causes tragedies, so I try to be careful. I got my license when I was eighteen and didn’t have much driving experience prior to that, but I’ve always been quite confident. We lived just over the county line then, just pass the cotton field, just at the end of a long road without streetlights, and what seemed to me, just out of civilization. The drive home seemed easy most of the way until you got to highway 401. My parents always told me to watch out for deer. Strangely enough I don’t think I ever saw more than two along that road over a span of four years; they seemed to linger more towards town. My brother taught me a trick though, to spot the deer before they stupidly jumped in front of your car: look for the eyes. The headlights reflect in their eyes and you’ll spot them standing on the side of road. Since 401 lacked any form of streetlights, it’s become my trick now.
Once you entered our neighbourhood it didn’t seem like the middle of nowhere anymore. There’s about fifteen houses lining the two streets, each one probably built less than five years ago. It’s quaint and feels safe, but I always thought the houses were a little too close together. Our backyard made up for that though. My brother, sister and I weren’t all that thrilled with our parents final decision of where we were moving, but then again what did we know? We moved here from the Caribbean, we were spoilt. But our backyard, where we could play football, satisfy our pyromania with the fire pit and get lost in the woods behind us, shut us up about the town. It didn’t seem so bad when we knew we had a whole world to explore right behind our home.
The three of us knew each other well through our forest expeditions. Those started back a bit before the house in Fuquay Varina though. I guess it started when we moved to Georgia, to a 2 town called Snellville. My parents seem like experts at finding the towns with the strangest names. That was a place that thrilled our childish desires; ten acres, two lakes and what seemed like endless forest cut in half by an unimpeded creek. I remember fumbling down the hill to those woods in light up sneakers. Countless times we returned just before the dark with red mud caking our shoes and scrapes wrapping our limbs. My brother and I often went alone. I only remember once when our mom let us take our younger sister. She spotted a snake no longer than banana and no fatter than a piece of twine, and she, in a hysterical fit, was convinced that it would eat us. I don’t think she was allowed to go with us again after that. Another time my brother and I took it upon ourselves to climb the near-vertical hill. It probably wasn’t as grand as I remember, but it eventually resulted in us sliding down the muddy slope on our stomachs. I remember my brother laughing as he clung to my foot when we dangled just before the jagged rocks of the creek. To my nine-year-old self, it was a near death experience.
We became somewhat accustomed to moving, usually with much reluctance. But I think by the time we got to North Carolina, in little Fuquay Varina, we were older and ready to embrace change, more so than we had in the past. We arrived near the end of summer, so our first expeditions didn’t begin until the fall. The air was crisp and the leaves fell in a sea of red and orange. This was what we missed about the U.S., the seasons. Each one felt like a gradual opening to a fresh start. In our fall journeys we first noticed what lay directly behind our house, peeking through the stringy pines. They were large, they were dark, they were mysterious and there were two. Our mom explained that they were old tobacco cabins and we quickly learned of North Carolina’s tobacco fueled history. One morning I saw from the porch someone by those cabins. Seventeen and curious, I took it upon myself to investigate. His name was Jess. Average 3 height, thinning hair and probably around late forties. What struck me most about his appearance was the curved scar across his forehead. My inner child wanted to inquire, but I minded my manners. He made polite conversation, even though I was probably bothering him. He explained the cabins were his, belonging to his father before he passed. He was clearing the broken branches from around the cabins and placing them in the bed of his pickup. I offered to help, but he insisted otherwise, and then I saw his politeness go away. I saw his eyes take on a strange, gaze that made me feel cold. “You ought not to be back in these woods, hear?” he snarled at me. Caught off guard, I couldn’t think of a reply other than asking why. This only irritated him further. “Because it is not your property,” he said. “People go out in them woods and people get hurt.”
That was the first and last time I spoke to Jess.
His harsh words spooked me a bit at the time, but in the next few weeks he faded to the back of my mind as our grumpy old neighbour. I didn’t tell anyone what he said, I didn’t want to discourage our future journeys. And there were many to take. His house sat back aways past the section of the woods with the cabins and then led out to his small farm. I felt this was far enough that he wouldn’t see us as we explored. Our first journeys took us to the left of our house and quickly upon a creek. It started out small but as you followed it grew and shrunk many times. With each change to the size of the creek, the scenery of the woods seemed to change too. It started out quite plain with pine trees, broken branches and beds of pine needles; the creek was small. Our first artifact laid here. A deer carcass that hadn’t been dead for too long. It shocked and intrigued us at the same time. We’d come across similar artifacts in our previous expeditions, but nothing ever this fresh. Nothing still so alive with the smell of death. The 4 skeleton was exposed, mainly the skull, so it wasn’t that fresh. The fur held on in most places, and bugs swarmed closely. I think what intrigued us most was how small it was, definitely a fawn. It didn’t come to the creekside to die from old age. Something killed it.
As we continued we entered the thorne maze, this was our little hell. Impatient and overconfident, we often ran through and emerged with dozens of scratches and holes in our clothes; the creek grew wider. After this the woods began to open up. Sands beds laid on either side of the creek and the trees became hollow and held more space between them. My brother constantly dared us to climb into the hollow trees, but if our childhood taught us anything, it was recognizing his antics and when something was a bad idea. It was here we found the hunting blind sitting high up in one rather fragile looking tree. It seemed old, rusty and unsafe. We climbed it several times.
The farthest we trekked most times was to what I thought of as the fairy garden. Maybe it seemed so magical because we always came to it when the sun was setting, and that created a golden glow around it. This small section grew no trees and held no thorns, only what seemed like the tiniest bushes in the world that puffed purple dust towards the sky when you stepped on them. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen in the woods and it felt peaceful.
We were excited for what winter would bring in the farthest North we’d ever lived. We weren’t disappointed. The snow came twice that year and laid on our lawn until mid February. Our bland neighbourhood suddenly seemed breathtaking and felt as though there weren’t separate yards, each private property, but that we all shared this entire street of white. Sledding down the hill our house sat upon was exhilarating, but how the winter transformed our woods was wildly beyond our expectations. Snow fell like powdered sugar and laid on every branch, 5 making you not want to disturb a thing. The pond froze over but we didn’t dare walk on it, we learned from the lakes in Georgia. However one of our many cats, the heaviest one at that, dared otherwise. He fell through but managed to get back to us on shore. I carried his shivering little body through the woods and back to the house, baffled by his stupidity. I thought cats were supposed to have some type of instinct. I guess ours were different. Our cats often followed us into the woods, but that was after the snow melted.
There’s a period between winter and spring after the snow melts but before the sun really shows itself. It’s still cold, it rains and it’s foggy, but it never stopped us from going out. The most memorable hike we took is when we found ourselves farther into the woods than we had ever gone before. And we became lost. For hours. We were pass the hollow trees, pass the fairy garden and much farther pass a barbed wire fence that lay stomped into the ground. For the first time I began to feel scared that we had gone too far. Every step we took into these woods was trespassing. Every step felt more dangerous. My thoughts flashed back to Jess. But then we saw something in the distance that threw me back into my curious eighteen-year-old mentality. It was a house. I guess it was average size, a shotgun house, surrounded by weeds and other overgrown foliage. It was white paneled, with moss growing up the sides in streaks, and had a wooden porch on the far left side that probably couldn’t have stood a harsh wind. A large branch hovered above it, but that wasn’t what caused the roof to cave in like it did. The right side was completely smashed to the ground, sloping down into a pile of debris. We went inside, like we knew we shouldn't, and creeped across the creaking floor. The plants from outside flowed over the brick wall and into the largest room. The floor was made up of moldy boards, shredded pieces of grey cloth and cracking cement. At any moment it probably could have gave out under our weight, but 6 we were under its spell as we walked farther inside. In the middle of the largest room stood the strangest aspect to the house. It was a well. A cracking, mossy cement cylinder that rose from the middle of the room. We were in awe. A rusty, bent metal lid was nailed to the top, but pried open as if something had escaped. We ogled over the sides but all it held was darkness. My brother threw a stone in and we waited to hear it hit the bottom. It took about three seconds, roughly one hundred feet. All I could think of was, why is this here?
We left after that and found our way to a dirt road. The fog was getting thicker and it engulfed the end of the road, but what really made us finally leave was when we heard dogs howling. We still didn’t find our way home until dusk. It was always amazing to me how, in over ten years of hiking, getting lost and eventually finding our way, we never found ourselves in the woods at night.
I was grateful for that. I always saw the woods as something else at night. A place that could harbour anything, because of what you couldn’t see. I never ever wanted to find myself in the woods at night, despite how much I loved it during the day. Perhaps I had always been a little scared of the dark, I think we all are at some point. But I don’t think it’s the dark itself; I was afraid that it made me see things that weren’t there. But I did always enjoy my drives home on 401 at night. Maybe because I felt safe in the interior of the car, knowing there was some distance between me and the dark forests. I constantly found myself driving home around two a.m., music blasting. I think I was so confident in driving at night because I never felt tired behind the wheel. Even if I was prior to getting in the car, knowing I had to drive woke me up. However, when I came to 401 I almost always made sure to turn down the music and decelerate. It eventually just became my reaction as soon as the last streetlight was behind me. There are usually never any other cars on that road at that hour, which felt slightly menacing, but I liked it because I could leave my brights on.
Just after the cotton field on the left and the dilapidated shed on the right, the road would flatten out and I felt more confident in speeding up. The turn to my neighborhood came in just about two miles. The first month of the year just always seemed to produce fog. There was a bit of it hovering above the road, but nothing that altered my sight too much. The other hindrance was ice, the elusive treachery and perhaps the only one I truly worried about. But my hands were cautious and my eyes were steady, keeping in mind my brothers trick. I never thought I would use it until that night. Through the dark and through the fog, I saw it. Two large, round reflections stared back at me. I didn’t need to keep my vision partly off the road to see it, this figure stood directly in front of my car. But it wasn’t a deer, it was a man. Hunched over with stiff arms that looked broken. I slammed on the brakes but the car still slid onward a few feet. I felt my stomach sink inside me and my hands begin to shake. It hit the bottom of the car. My heart was racing, thinking how close he was to me if I was able to hit him. The car didn’t feel like a safe enough barrier anymore. I didn't get out. I was much too scared to even consider that. I took off my seatbelt and raised myself out of the seat to try to see above the dashboard. The bang came from the bumper and made me scream. In less than a second he was on his feet and at eye level with me. His eyes, although sitting in the head of man, looked completely inhuman. His gaze made my blood run cold. In the next moment he was fleeing across the road and back into the woods. I sat back and tried to catch my breath. I recognized him. I recognized his face. I recognized that curved scar. In the next few moments I realized I was still stationary in the middle of the road, so I left. When I pulled into the driveway I was still too terrified just to make 8 the walk inside. I was tired but too shaken to sleep. I laid awake in bed until the sun peeked through the curtains. Obsessively replaying the incident over in my head, I could've sworn I was seeing him in the dark corners of my room. It was around five a.m. when the thought occurred to me: human eyes don’t reflect light.
I never told anyone about what I saw that night. I was honestly afraid they wouldn’t believe me. I wanted not to believe me. In the coming years with college and adulthood entering our lives, my siblings and I seemed to grow away from our forest expeditions. I didn’t know if I was grateful for that or not. For I was still curious about what came out of the woods.