The trip back home was not supposed to have taken long. Jed and his father had been making excellent time on the way back from the fair. Their horse Titan had been clomping along at champion speeds until hitting a hole, upending them. They had been halfway through the Windswept Woods, where all the trees seemed to lean towards the dawn regardless of whether a wind blew or not.
Jed’s father had looked at Titan and then at Jed, his eyes gloomy, and had told Jed to go by the side of the path down a ways, and turn his back. Jed heard a soft sound, like a cough, and then Jed’s father was beside him again, patting his back gingerly and guiding him down the road.
“We’re close to home,” Jed’s father said. He wore an oversized blue woolen jacket that was cinched around his waist with a length of strong cord, and over his back he had thrown the gold they had taken in from selling his wood carvings at the fair. When Jed asked his father how much they had made, he had given his son a sly smile and nodded, saying only, “Enough for now, not enough forever, though,” and changed the subject.
Jed was ten, almost eleven, and though he was tall for his age, he was dwarfed by his father, who was a tall man that most men had to look up to even if they didn’t respect him, but most did. Jed felt safe with his father, though he wouldn’t admit that the dipping sun was filling him with all kinds of dread. He wouldn’t admit that to anyone.
Jed’s father was a large, burly silhouette walking beside him with his satchel full of clinking coins. Jed looked around the woods, glaring deeply at every shadow thrown by each cock-eyed tree. The shadows were black carpets, unfurled across the road in lazy, criss-cross arcs. Thin fingers reached for him.
Jed kept pace with his father, doubling his own steps to match his father’s long strides.
“Have you…” Jed started to say, but a sudden jolt of sound to his right interrupted him. Something skittered through the woods. The sun was in a hurry for slumber, and had all but left them alone. The sky was deep with clouds, and a thick tarp of ebony began to drape itself over the woods.
“Didn’t know we’d need lamplight,” Jed’s father said, and let out a sallow laugh. “Oh well,
we’ll be home soon.”
Jed’s bearings were not as good as his father’s. He wasn’t quite sure how far away from home they were. They lived a distance from the edge of the Windswept Woods, that much he knew, but he didn’t know how deep in the woods they had come, nor how far from it’s edge they were. Best to keep pace with his father and act the man.
“Poppa, have you ever heard of the Scareglow?”
Though his father was little more than a shadow, Jed could see him turn his head to him. “Scareglow? Blazes, Jed, I haven’t heard that name since I was a kid. My sister, rest her, she used to scare me something fierce about him.”
“Is he real?”
He didn’t look up at his father. He only looked at the dark shape of his father’s form from the side of his vision, not wanting to see a disapproving glare.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts, Jed. You’re old enough to know that,” his father said. His voice was calm, and low. There was no real disapproval there.
Jed remained silent. He didn’t want to disagree with his father, but he knew that there were some thing adults did not — could not — know. They just didn’t see the world like a child did. But he couldn’t help himself. “He’s not a ghost.” Jed finally said, unable to stop himself.
Jed’s father stopped. Jed wished he wouldn’t. The only thing keeping him calm was their forward momentum, and the promise that they’d be out of the woods soon.
The sun was only a memory and the black sky burned above them, casting no light. His eyes were wide, drinking in what remained of starlight festering behind the clouds, but there was little to drink.
His father didn’t move. Jed felt his body heat, heard the clink of the coins, but his father was still.
Silence greeted him. Jed felt his heart pound, and he was about to flail around in the dark for his father’s jacket to grab on to, when he heard him sigh.
In a whisper, he said. “Don’t think about such things, Jed. Especially here.”
Jed said nothing.The darkness seemed to have a pulse, it seemed to be a living thing, pregnant with terrors all around him. If only that horse hadn’t found that hole, if only they had left sooner, if only…
“Jed, your night vision is stronger than mine. How about you take my hand to keep me from straying from the road?”
Jed saw a blur and felt a hand reach for his, and he eagerly grabbed it. The contact soothed him. He knew his father could easily spot a block of coal in a cave, but wasn’t yet proud enough to deny the fable if his father wished to pretend.
They began to walk again. The woods seemed larger than he remembered and even more impenetrable, but he felt better with his father’s hand. If there had been light, he would have felt like a child, but in the dark he gave himself permission to take solace in the comfort this simple contact gave him.
“My sister told me all about Scareglow when I was a kid,” Jed’s father said suddenly. His voice was low and hoarse, and quivered as if summoning an uncomfortable memory. “She was older, as you know, and loved to terrorize me with all kinds of spookstories. Once she left me alone in these very woods at night, and told me the Scareglow would be coming for me. I can remember her voice as if it just happened. She ran away, and I tried to catch up, but she was so fast, and I hadn’t yet gotten my legs, and she just… left me behind. My pa spanked her silly for it, but she just laughed and laughed.”
His voice dropped even lower, his whisper coarsening. “I can remember that night so clearly. It was dark. So dark …” His voice trailed off. Their footsteps crunched in unison in the darkness. Jed was about to speak when his father began talking again. “See, most people think it’s the glow that causes the fear. They think he radiates it, like … some kind of fear lamp. But it’s not. The glow comes from the fear. He’s feeding on it, you see. The more you fear, the brighter he glows. The woods glowed so brightly …”
Jed’s mouth was dry. He was near tears now. He had never heard his father’s voice like that. It wasn’t what he wanted to hear. It was a small sound, like a child, and unlike his father’s booming voice at all. He squeezed his father’s hand. His father squeezed back an then let Jed’s hand drop.
Jed panicked for a second, and reached out for his hand, grasping nothing but a fistful of black air. “Poppa?”
He reached out, spinning around in a tight circle. He immediately regretted it, because he lost his bearing immediately. Which way had he been going? He didn’t dare move, because he’d be lost in an instant. He rooted himself and stretched his arms out, hoping he was still within arm’s distance.
“It’s OK Jed, it’s OK. I’ve got you,” His father said, and Jed felt his father’s hand slink back into his.
“Don’t let go again poppa,” Jed said, not caring if he sounded like a child of five. He squeezed as hard as he could and was relieved when his father clamped down just as hard.
They began waking through the black woods again. They had to be closer to the clearing. They just had to.
Jed tasted the words in his mouth. They were unpleasant, but they needed releasing. “Did you see him Poppa?” Jed asked, not wanting to know the answer, startled at the sound of his own voice. There was no strength in it, only a squeak. He felt ashamed, but his father matched his voice with his own, low and whispery, but strong, and comforting at the same time.
“What do you mean?”
“You said the woods glowed. Back then. Did you see him?”
His father squeezed his hand gently. In a low hoarse voice, he said “What did I tell you about ghosts, Jed?”
Jed took a deep breath and let it out through his nose. “That they didn’t exist.”
“Oh Jed … you can’t believe everything you hear,” Scareglow said, and squeezed Jed’s hand tight.
Then the woods began to glow.
Previous installments of Fwoosh Flash Fiction:
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